Firsts of all kinds carry the greater burden of memory and expectation.
Both brain and heart register that there is but one first time, and there are no re-dos. You either nail it and everything after risks comparison to the perfection of that initial time or you bungle it and then consequent times carry the slightest whiff of recalled failures.
First drive, first love, first step on foreign soil, first home-cooked meal in a place of one’s own— we all remember these and can recall with almost eerie detail how well we pulled it off — or not.
So when this little Robin’s Egg beauty came my way (birthday surprise #2!), I knew that what I made with her the very first time would be forever imprinted on my memory, so it had better be good. This was not a time to test out new recipes — what if they weren’t rock-star status? What if an unfamiliarity with speeds on my new machine resulted in failure?
No, no, this wouldn’t do. Time to pull out the big guns, and a recipe that has NEVER failed to make new friends everywhere they go. Block party favorite, beloved by teachers and new moms and every single kid I have ever met, folks let’s hear a round of applause as I present to you…
GOOEY CARAMEL BUTTER BARS.
Now if those aren’t four of the most auspicious words strung together, I don’t know what are.
Gooey. Check. Who doesn’t love something gooey?
Caramel. I couldn’t love you more if I birthed you.
Butter. Okay, you had me at Caramel. Now you’re just toying with me.
Bars. This one evokes something bigger than a bite and hints at being both stacked and wickedly indulgent (please, people, if you are going to come up with a healthy-ish dessert, don’t misrepresent by adding the “bar” moniker — it’s just not right. Low Fat Date Bran Bars? Hurl.)
Apparently recipes for caramel bars are all over the Net, but I have found the best one in a book my friend Alicia gave me called Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey by Jill O’Connor. It’s a sweetheart of a cookbook and I love everything about it — the recipes, the food styling, the scalloped pages, the whole shebang. Do yourself and your baking audience a big favor and pick up this book.
Let me tell you why this recipe is a must-make. First up, chances are you have everything but the caramels in your cupboard. Secondly and most importantly, this bar combines everything you love about dense, buttery shortbread and the flavor of salted caramel in the most sumptuous, opulent way, and the salty-sweet foxtrot keeps you enthralled.
I had a lot of baking to do. Not only did I have my Meals on Wheels route to bake for, I wanted something to go out with all the thank you cards for my birthday fete and for teachers during Science Fair. Time to double the recipe. Two pounds of butter is where it all began, and as I unwrapped the butter and added it to the stainless steel bowl, I paused for a minute. I took in the beauty of my gorgeous mixer and thought to myself, it will never again be as pristine and shiny as it was right then. It deserved a moment of recognition. But ah, the places we’ll go together.
The recipe is ridiculously straightforward, and honestly the most difficult thing about it is trying not to eat too many of the Kraft caramels as you unwrap them (more ambitious bakers can make their own caramel or purchase a fine jarred variety like Fran’s or Trader Joe’s).
Here is what my two giant glass Pyrex dishes look post-second bake, both with and without a dusting of powdered sugar.
Because they are so rich and so many of them were going to my seniors (who seem to eat less at a time than others), I cut the whole two pans into more manageable bite-sized squares.
I took a gander through my craft closet to see how I might wrap them, and I came across the most lovely vintage pine cone paper. I bought this huge roll last year for three dollars at SCRAP (you can read about it here), and I thought it would look great with the bars.
I also found some orphaned compostable trays and I liked how they cradled my little lovelies without smashing them. Because I had written out all the thank you cards and defrosted a couple dozen sugar cookies the day before, I just had to assemble a total of sixteen of these trays, top the cookies in St. Patrick’s Day green icing, and hit the road.
Everywhere I looked there were signs of the newness and promise — tulips and crocuses and daffodils. Dozens and dozens of people walking around, chatting with neighbors, indulging their dogs in unlimited sniffing. And a whole lot of Irish love.
Mostly the people on my route were holding steady. J, my crankster, tried to give me back a quarter of the box of the Girl Scouts cookies I gave him last week, but I was able to convince him to put them in his freezer to save for another day. E., my Cuban lady, was uncharacteristically quiet as she told me that the shingles have hit her hard and the pain above her right eye was unrelenting. Poor thing.
Most poignant moment again was with L., the woman with pancreatic cancer. I had promised myself that I would try to avoid the platitudes of the past, and just be quiet and listen. I’d also try to stay as long as she needed to talk.
She told me more about her diagnosis last year; she walked in for what she thought was a routine check up post-flu only to find out he wanted blood work done. Much to her shock, she was diagnosed shortly thereafter with this deadly disease.
She wanted to talk about her upcoming doctor’s visit that day, and how she wanted to stop chemo. She felt relatively fine when she wasn’t doing it, and oncologists couldn’t promise her that the dreadful treatment would result in more time for her. It was a dilemma for her — take the possibility of a longer life but suffer immeasurably while doing so, or stop and enjoy the limited time left feeling relatively well?
Her husband, a handsome man in arty black glasses in his early 60’s, listened and watched as she spoke. I talked to him privately when a phone call took her attention away and asked how he was doing. He talked about his own hep C but was stoic, uncomplaining, matter-of-fact. He assured me that he could handle the stress of it all and asserted that’s what couples did for each other.
Right before I left she told me that there was a bright side to all of this. She said both her mother and father had Alzheimer’s and she had watched those around them suffer. She has since lived the last 20 years fearing the same fate for herself; the rapid progression of her cancer, however, meant that this one fear was one she could now let go. She looked truly grateful to be able to spare her loved ones that bullet, and laughed sadly at the irony.
I went back to my car and cried.
Something about this couple really moves me — their easy affection for each other, their quiet bravery, their candor without pity for real-life decisions they have to make. No “woe is me”. No “my life sucks”. Just, “wow, what can you do but deal with it?”
L. and W., this bar is for you, and I dedicate my KitchenAid’s inaugural usage to you.
- FOR THE CRUST:
- 1 lb. (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 C. granulated sugar
- 1½ C. confectioners' sugar, sifted
- 1 Tbs. pure vanilla extract
- 1 tsp. salt
- 4 C. unbleached all-purpose flour
- FOR THE FILLING:
- 1 bag (14 oz.) caramel candies, (about 50 individual caramels), unwrapped
- ⅓ C. heavy cream (I used milk and it was fine)
- ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract (I doubled it)
- pinch of salt (I added about 2 tsp. fleur de sel)
- confectioners' sugar for dusting (optional)
- To make the crust: In a large bow, combine the butter and sugars. Using an electric mixer set at medium speed, beat together until creamy. Add the vanilla and salt and beat until combined. Sift the flour into the butter mixture and beat on low speed until a smooth, soft dough forms.
- Spray a 9-by-13 inche baking pan lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Press one-third of the dough evenly into the pan to form a bottom crust. Pat the remaining dough into a flat disk and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerated until firm, at least 30 minutes.
- Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Bake until firm and the edges are a pale golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool.
- While the bottom crust is baking and the remaining dough is chilling, make the caramel filling. Place the unwrapped caramels in a microwave-safe bowl. Add the cream, vanilla and salt. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove from the microwave and stir until smooth. If caramels are not completely melted, microwave on high for 30-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until smooth ( I did the entire melting thing on stovetop and it too worked great on low heat).
- Pour the caramel filling over the crust, using a small metal spatula to nudge the filling evenly over the crust. Remove the remaining chilled dough from the the refrigerator and crumble it evenly over the caramel. Return the pan to the oven and baking until the filling is bubbly and the crumbled shortbread topping is firm and and lightly golden, about 30 minutes.
- Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.
- Use a sharp knife and cut the bars evenly into 15 large squares (I got about 50 small bites). Remove the bars from the pan with a metal spatula and, if desired, cut in half on the diagonal to form 30 triangular bars. Dust with confectioners' sugar, if desired.
- The bars will keep, covered tightly at room temperature, for about a week, or in the freezer for up to one month.