May 5, 2014

Everyone has a weakness, and one of mine is dessert bars, specifically the corner piece. I love bars because of their simplicity. A pan of bars is much faster and easier to make than batches of cookies. Bars are also easy to slice up and store, and bars are ideal for transporting to potlucks and picnics. Once you're at your destination, just grab and go, no forks needed.

Lemon Bars

Lemon bars are a classic dessert. These elegant yellow bars by Saveur are creamy and just tart enough to wake up your taste buds.

For the lemon curd:

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and chilled

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

zest and juice of 2 large lemons

For the shortbread crust:

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar, plus more for dusting

1 cups flour

Whisk together sugar and eggs in a 2-qt. saucepan until smooth; stir in zest and juice. Place over medium heat, and cook, stirring often, until thickened to the consistency of loose pudding. Remove from heat and add butter, a couple cubes at a time, until smooth; transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine butter, both sugars, and flour in a bowl and beat on medium speed of hand mixer until smooth and evenly combined. Transfer to a parchment paper-lined 8-inch square baking pan, and press into the bottom. Bake until lightly golden and set, about 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees, pour lemon curd over crust, and continue baking until slightly loose in the center, about 10 minutes. Let cool completely, and then refrigerate until firm. Cut into squares and dust with confectioners' sugar to serve.

Makes 16 bars

Caramel Pretzel Bars

I've become a real fan of salty and sweet foods. These bars from Saveur are slathered with ooey gooey caramel and crunchy, salty pretzels provide the perfect balance between salty and sweet. The combination is so unexpected your taste buds won't know what to do.

For the shortbread:

1 cup all-purpose flour

teaspoon salt

cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/3 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the caramel topping:

cup (1 sticks) unsalted butter

1 cups light brown sugar

cup honey

cup maple syrup

teaspoon salt

1 cup heavy cream

6 cups (about 9 oz) small pretzel twists, lightly broken up

To make the shortbread: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line a 9x13-inch baking pan with parchment paper, folding paper up and over the sides of the pan. In a small bowl, whisk together flour and salt, and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and brown sugar at medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Beat in the vanilla, change speed to low, and add the flour-salt mixture. Mix until crumbly, 10-15 seconds. Pat the dough evenly into the bottom of the parchment-lined pan, and prick dough all over with a fork. Bake 15-18 minutes, until just golden brown around the edges. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

To make the caramel: In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, and salt. Stir regularly until mixture is foamy and slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add cream and cook, stirring occasionally, until a candy thermometer inserted into the caramel registers 240 degrees (soft ball stage), about 11 minutes. Add the crushed pretzels and quickly incorporate into the caramel.

Pour the pretzel-caramel mixture over the baked shortbread, spreading the mixture evenly. Return to the oven until the topping is bubbling, 12-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely. Remove from the baking pan by lifting the edges of the parchment paper; unfold the paper and slice into bars. Serve immediately, or bars will keep for up to 1 week in an airtight container.

Makes 32 large bars

No-Bake Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars

When given the choice of a candy bar, my son, Carsten 3, always chooses a Reese's peanut butter cup. There is one word for these bars - sinful. They taste very similar to a peanut butter cup and are not only quick to make, but a big hit with everyone who tries them.

1 cup butter or margarine, melted

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

2 cups confectioners' sugar

1 cup peanut butter

1 cups semisweet chocolate chips

4 tablespoons peanut butter

In a medium bowl, mix together the butter or margarine, graham cracker crumbs, confectioners' sugar, and 1 cup peanut butter until well blended. Press evenly into the bottom of an ungreased 9x13 inch pan.

In a metal bowl over simmering water, or in the microwave, melt the chocolate chips with the remaining peanut butter, stirring occasionally until smooth. Spread over the prepared crust. Refrigerate for at least one hour before cutting into squares.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumb Bars

The anticipated rhubarb season is fast approaching in Iowa. These bars are perfect for a summer picnic. The recipe adapted from one by Martha Stewart combines sweet strawberries and tart red rhubarb topped with a crumbly streusel topping. If you wish, you can add a dollop of fresh whipped cream on top.

For the Streusel:

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted, plus room-temperature butter for pan

3/4 cup packed golden brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon sea salt or Kosher salt

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for pan

For the Bars:

1/2 lb rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 lb fresh Strawberries, hulled and sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 1/2 tablespoons golden brown sugar

1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt or Kosher salt

3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the Whipped Cream Topping (optional):

1 cup whipped cream

1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

confectioners' sugar for dusting the top

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two sides (use a swipe of butter on edges of pan to help keep parchment flush with pan. Butter and flour the parchment and pan, tapping out excess flour.

To make streusel: Whisk together butter, brown sugar, and salt. Add flour and mix together using a fork or your fingers to create large crumbs. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To make cake: In a medium bowl, combine rhubarb, strawberries, brown sugar, and 1/3 cup of flour. Sift or whisk together remaining flour, baking powder, and salt, then set aside.

In a mixer, beat butter and confectioners' sugar until light and fluffy. Slowly add eggs and vanilla extract. Stir in flour mix until just incorporated.

Spread batter in prepared pan, top with rhubarb/strawberry mix then top with streusel topping.

Bake 50-55 minutes or until golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in pan, then remove from pan using the overhanging parchment tabs.

While bars bake, whisk together whipped cream, confectioners' sugar, and vanilla extract to firm peaks. Set aside in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Slice bars to preferred size, dust with confectioners' sugar and serve or top with whipped cream and serve.

Makes 16 bars