The record will show that I need very little excuse to bake. I'll bake at the drop of the hat, just because I feel like doing it, and because, as I mentioned last week, it helps relieve stress for me. However, having a raison d'être for creating my baked goods does give me a certain creative spark. If I'm baking for a specific occasion, like Justin's birthday, to take a recent example, or my yearly Cookie Bonanza, I try to push myself to go the extra mile.
Accordingly, when my turn came around again on the Cake Day roster at work, I started making grandiose plans. I've been bookmarking cake recipes like crazy ever since my success with Justin's birthday cake, and I'd been looking for an opportunity to try my hand at it again with a large enough audience to properly consume the end product. Cake Day would provide just the opportunity I was looking for. Alas, my dreams of towering layer cake perfection were not to be this week. I ended up having too much on my plate this weekend between fixing up our new place and making dinner for Justin's parents' Sunday night to get a proper head start on an elaborate Cake Day tour de force. That particular aspiration will have to simmer on the back burner for a while.
Instead, I turned once more to my old friend, Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats to Bake and Share, and selected a new recipe, just to give my skills a bit of a stretch at the very least. Having loved the Macadamia-Maple Sticky Bars I baked with Katherine in May, I'd been curious about Martha's recipe for pecan bars ever since, wondering if they could possibly live up to the recipe I'd already tried. Plus, pecan bars are reminiscent of pecan pie, which is a typical Thanksgiving treat, so I could make a nod to seasonality without baking yet another pumpkin dessert, which have been dominating the Cake Day offerings since the start of fall.
I've long been enamored with the idea of pecan pie, as it combines three things that ought to be delicious -- pecans, caramel-y filling, and pie crust, but more often than not, it's an overly sweet mess. I know pecans are expensive, but that's no excuse for a pecan pie to be 90% corn syrupy goo. These bar cookies resolve that problem by spreading a thin layer of nuts and honey-based caramel over a crisp shortbread base. There actually could have been a few more nuts, as they were a little sparse for my liking, but there was just enough filling to tie the whole thing together without it becoming overwhelming.
Overall, the bars went over well with the Cake Day crowd, and I was happy with how they turned out, even if I'd rather have baked an actual cake. The pecan bars were, however, not nearly as good as the Macadamia-Maple Sticky Bars, so I think I'll look to those again if I'm looking to make a caramel-nut flavored cookie. They're still in the top five of baked goods to come out of my kitchen this year, and while I'm glad to have satisfied my curiosity about Martha's pecan bars, I'll be sticking with what works from now on.
adapted from Martha Stewart
18 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 c. all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed
6 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 oz pecan halves
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 375.
1. To make the crust: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix butter and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add salt, and mix to combine. Add flour 1 cup at a time, on medium speed, mixing until fully incorporated after each addition. Continue mixing until the dough begins to come together in large clumps.
2. Press dough about 1/4-inch thick into a 9-by-13-by-1-inch baking pan lined with parchment paper. Prick the pastry with the tines of a fork. Chill until firm, about 20 minutes. Bake until golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely
3. Reduce oven to 325 degrees. To make the filling: Place butter, brown sugar, honey, granulated sugar, heavy cream, and salt in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until mixture coats the back of a spoon, about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat; stir in nuts and vanilla.
4. Pour filling onto the cooled crust. Bake until filling bubbles, 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Run a paring knife around edges of the pan, and pull parchment to remove to a cutting board. Peel off the parchment, leaving the pastry filling side up. Use a sharp knife to cut into 1-by-3-inch bars. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.