Vail High Altitude Baking column: Peanut squares are sweet and salty
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.
What’s as American as apple pie and just as popular? Peanuts! We love ’em, devour them by the handful, and cheerfully forgive them for claiming to be something they’re not (they’re a legume rather than a nut). They’re found in recipes for everything from appetizers to desserts and, in my opinion, add something special to almost every dish. Take these peanut squares, for example. They’re a simple bar cookie, elevated to five-star status by the crunchy texture and mealy taste of peanuts.
This little goodie consists of a buttery, brown-sugar crust that holds a caramel-like layer flavored by peanut butter chips and topped by honey-roasted and salted peanuts … a double-peanut-whammy made even better by the addictive play between sweet and salty tastes. They get two-thumbs-up every time I serve them and some fans note a welcome similarity to Pay Day candy bars.
There’s nothing difficult about making them. The crust, which comes together quickly in a food processor or with an electric mixer, is baked until firm. While the crust cools a bit, the filling ingredients are cooked gently on the stovetop until they reach the consistency of caramel, and then poured over it. Coarsely chopped peanuts are scattered on top, and the pan goes back in the oven for a final baking. Once completely cooled, the bars can be stored, airtight, at cool room temperature for five days. They freeze well for up to six weeks.
(Make in an 8-by-8-inch metal baking pan.)
1⁄2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of flour
1⁄4 cup of packed light brown sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon of salt
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter (half a stick)
1⁄3 cup of light corn syrup
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1⁄2 cup plus 1⁄3 cup of peanut butter chips
5 ounces of honey roasted and salted peanuts (one cup), coarsely chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the center position. Line the baking pan with non-stick aluminum foil or regular foil. Extend the foil several inches on two opposing sides of the pan to use as handles when removing the baked cookie. Grease well, if using regular foil. Set the pan aside.
Make the crust: Put the flour, light brown sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine well. Cut up and add the butter, then pulse until moist curds occur (The mixture will look dry and crumbly at first; keep pulsing until the butter softens and creates the curds. Stop before the dough smooths out.)
To make with a mixer: Soften the butter and beat it with the brown sugar at medium speed until well combined. Add the flour and salt and beat again until the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened, but stop before a smooth dough is formed.
For both methods, dump the dough into the prepared pan and, gently pressing with your hands, level and smooth it. Press through a piece of plastic wrap to speed up the process. Bake until the crust is set and the edges start to color, from 15-20 minutes. If the dough puffs while baking, prick the puff with a fork or toothpick to let the air escape. Remove the pan from the oven and place on a rack to cool while you make the peanut layer.
Make the peanut layer: Put the corn syrup, butter and peanut butter chips in a medium saucepan. Place it over medium-low heat and stir constantly until the butter and chips melt and form a smooth, shiny mixture with the corn syrup. Remove from the heat and pour over the crust (which may still be warm). Spread it evenly to the edges of the crust with an offset spatula and sprinkle the chopped honey roasted peanuts over it, lightly pressing them into the topping. Bake until there are bubbles around the edge of the topping (around 15 minutes). Remove to a rack until almost completely cool.
Use the foil handles to remove the cookie block from the pan and gently turn down the sides of the foil. Let the cookie block cool completely. If you aren’t serving them immediately, refrigerate, covered, for several days or freeze for about six weeks. Cut into squares while cool.
This is a variation of a recipe in “The Good Cookie” by Tish Boyle.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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