Good things come to those who wait. And I don't just say that because I technically baked these cookies with Katherine on Monday night, the first evening she was in town, and didn't get around to blogging about them now. I say that mostly because I've been waiting to bake these cookies basically ever since I first got my copy of Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats to Bake and Share three years ago. The recipe, and accompanying photo, for Macadamia-Maple Sticky bars practically leapt off the page at me and screamed, "BAKE ME!!!" At the time, I'd never baked a bar cookie and wasn't even particularly fond of them as a genre, (though I've since overcome that aversion), but the pairing of my beloved maple flavoring with chewy caramel, crunchy nuts, and buttery shortbread, was too much to pass up.
However, due to no fault of my own, pass on it I did. You see, the recipe calls for maple sugar, which I had an endlessly difficult time locating in the Midwest. It's a far more common ingredient on the East Coast, where they manufacture maple syrup and other maple products, but around here, it's either considered a gourmet ingredient or a health food -- an alternative for those who turn up their nose at refined sugar. (Honestly though, I haven't the faintest idea how you could argue that maple sugar is somehow more natural than white sugar; both products undergo quite a bit of refinement to make it to the shelf. Chemically, it's composed of sucrose, just like white sugar. I don't understand health food folks.)
In the past three years, I managed to locate maple sugar exactly once, at Fox & Obel, my favorite gourmet food shop, but it was too expensive at the time for me to justify purchasing it for one recipe. When I went back, resolved to purchase it despite the expense, I found they no longer stocked it. I tried looking at Whole Foods, but every time I remembered to check, it was sold out. However, just when I was starting to consider the recipe a lost cause, Katherine asked if she could bring me some maple sugar as a hostess gift when she came to visit me last week. She'd originally wanted to bring maple syrup, but as a liquid, it never would have made it on the plane, and maple sugar seemed like the next best thing for bringing me a piece of the Northeast. Of course, given my struggles, I readily agreed.
Since an embarrassing percentage of my freezer space is given to nuts that I've found on sale and saved for later baking experiments (it's entirely possible that I may have been a squirrel in a previous life), I had all the other ingredients I needed to make these bars on hand, and I thought it would be nice to bake them with Katherine, not only because she provided the crucial missing ingredient, but because we always enjoyed baking together when we used to be roommates. It turned out to be the perfect project for us, as I prefer cookie baking, and Katherine has recently developed an interest in candy making.
Ultimately, the cookies turned out perfectly. In a rookie move, I failed to read the recipe carefully and ended up adding an extra half-teaspoon of salt to the cookie base, but ultimately, I think the extra saltiness added a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the topping. These bars, though messy to eat, are by far, the best cookies to come out of my kitchen since the rugelach I made in March. I took the leftovers with me to Grandma's house over the weekend, where they even garnered her approval. In fact, I think she ate three of them herself. Given that Grandma Betsy has always been the baker in the family, perhaps this is a sign that the student is slowly becoming the master after all...
Star Wars references aside, I think you need to make these cookies. They do sell maple sugar on the internet, and now that I know this recipe is a keeper, I'll be buying it online in the future once I use up the rest of my gift from Katherine. It'll be so worth it!
Macadamia-Maple Sticky Bars
adapted from Martha Stewart
1/2 c. plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 c. coarsely chopped macadamia nuts, toasted
1/4 c. plus 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1/4 c. plus 1 1/2 teaspoons maple sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350.
1. Butter a 8 inch square baking pan; line with parchment paper, allowing 2-inch overhang on two sides. Butter lining (not overhang).
2. Whisk together flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 cup nuts in a bowl.
3. Put 1/2 c. butter and 1/4 c. brown sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Mix in flour mixture and 1 teaspoon maple syrup. Press dough evenly into bottom of prepared pan. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
4. Bake until set in center and pale golden, 22 to 25 minutes. Transfer to wire rack; let cool slightly.
5. Put remaining 6 tablespoons butter and 1/2 c. nuts into a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat stirring constantly, until butter is very foamy and nuts are fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 teaspoon maple syrup, maple sugar, corn syrup, and cream. Boil, stirring constantly, 2 minutes.
6. Spread over crust. Let cool completely. Run a knife around non-parchment sides; life out of dish using overhang. Cut into 16 2-inch squares. Bars can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.