High Country Baking: Gooey-chewy caramel squares
VAIL CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: Living in the Colorado high country is pure joy. Baking in it isn’t. High altitude makes cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall, and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips to make baking in the mountains successful.
Looking for a cookie that demands your attention? These gooey-chewy caramel squares have tastes and textures bold enough to do just that. A chewy, crisp base and topping, made with oats, brown sugar, and butter, enclose a soft, rich filling of white chocolate, toffee and caramel. Anything but dainty, the combination is strong and satisfying; one bite and you’ll sit up and take notice.
The bars are a snap to make. Forget about a mixer, food processor, or any fancy equipment. If you’ve got two bowls, a couple spoons, and a microwave, you can have these oven-ready in about 15 minutes of active time. Once baked, they freeze very well and can be refrigerated for about four days if stored airtight.
If you need a quick dessert, cut the bars into larger squares, heat them in the microwave or in the oven until they’re warm to the touch and the caramel gets quite soft but not runny,(you want the cookie to hold its shape). Plate and serve them with a topping of vanilla ice cream.
Make in an 8-inch by 8-inch metal baking pan
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons of flour
1 cup of old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup of dark brown sugar
Scant (a little less than)1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 cup (eight tablespoons) of unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup of white chocolate chips
1/2 cup of chopped pecans, toasted
1/2 cup of toffee bits (Heath Bits o’Brickle)
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons of caramel sundae sauce (I use Smuckers)
3 tablespoons of flour
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the center position. Line the baking pan with non-stick aluminum foil or regular aluminum foil, extending it several inches beyond the edge on two opposing sides to use as handles when removing the cookies. If using regular foil, grease it well.
In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, and baking soda and stir/toss until well combined. Pour the melted butter over this and stir until all the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. Set aside a generous half cup of this mixture to use as a topping and press the rest in the prepared pan, making sure it’s level and smooth. Bake until set and light golden, about 12-15 minutes in my oven. Remove to a rack to cool slightly (about 5-8 minutes) but leave the oven on.
Make the filling: In a mixing bowl (I wipe out the bowl I used earlier with a paper towel and use it again) combine the white chocolate chips, toasted pecan pieces, and toffee bits. Sprinkle the mixture over the warm base, leveling it as you do. Combine the caramel sauce and three tablespoons of flour in a small bowl (I reuse the bowl in which I melted the butter after wiping it out with a paper towel) and stir or whisk vigorously until no flour is visible. Drizzle the sauce evenly over the white chocolate-nut-toffee bit mixture. Make a top layer by sprinkling the 1/2 cup of the flour-oat combination evenly all over the sauce. Return the pan to the oven and bake until the topping is set and turns light golden and the caramel bubbles at the sides of the pan. While the flour-oat topping will be crunchy, the batter below it will still be slightly soft when it’s done. Start checking at about 20 minutes in the oven. Don’t overbake or you’ll lose the wonderful, gooey texture.
Remove the pan from the oven and let cool on a rack until the uncut cookies are firm. Run a knife or offset spatula around the edge of the pan to loosen any caramel that sticks to the sides. Using the foil handles, carefully lift the block of cookies from the pan and, still in the foil, set them on a rack to cool completely. Cut into bars and serve or, if you are freezing them, leave them in a block, wrap them airtight, and cut into squares when they have defrosted.
This is a variation of a recipe in “The 250 Best Brownies, Bars, and Squares.”
Vera Dawson, a chef instructor with CMC’s Culinary Institute, lives in Summit County, where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at email@example.com.