Time spent in the kitchen tends to leave me happily tired and de-stressed, with an elaborate product on the counter – that is, until I realize that the by products of the cooking include grease and chocolate smears on cutting boards, spatulas floating in the dirty sink water, and a stack of pots and pans with residue that will only bake on harder in the dishwasher. Sometimes, a six component dessert with pastry cream, chocolate sauce, pate a choux, raspberry syrup, whipped cream, and tuille cigarettes is not the answer to the question of “what shall I bake today?” Plus, we were out of milk, a vital ingredient in pastry cream and pate a choux.
On the other hand, a combination of job hunting, interviewing, and having an extremely shadowy schedule was leading to the type of stress that I find easiest to discharge with a good whirl through the kitchen, so the question still needed an answer. Cookies leapt to mind, but I wanted to bake something new, not the same old chocolate chip, peanut butter, or oatmeal disks. So I dug around until I found an untried recipe among the many cookbooks that weigh down our kitchen shelves and checked for ingredients.
The next question I needed to weigh was whether baking caramel shortbread bar cookies would lead to being disowned by my mother – something I am sure she considers doing every time I present her with a dessert that does not include some sort of chocolate.
After some brief consideration, I decided to eliminate the top layer of shortbread, cook the caramel in a saucepan rather than on top of the cookie crust, and add a layer of chocolate cookie batter as a third stratum. Placing the entire amount of shortbread in the base of the pan led to a substantial crust and cooking the caramel in the pan with a minimum of attention led to some extra crunchy bits. But even though the deep brown caramel layer was difficult to spread, the chocolate cookie batter was loose enough to easily fill in the cracks, and the entire dish was soon in and out of the oven.
The cookie bars were appreciated warm and chilled by all of the members of the household. Cold, the caramel layer gained a chewiness that offset the crumbly shortbread and smooth chocolate in an entirely satisfactory manner. And a few simple preparation and clean-up tricks made washing the dishes a thing of minutes rather than hours.
Triumvirate Bars (Crumbly Vanilla, Chewy Caramel, and Smooth Chocolate)
recipes adapted from The Modern Baker, by Nick Malgieri and from Bittersweet, by Alice Medrich
Layer 1 : Shortbread Base
8 ounces butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla (I used our homemade extract of vodka + vanilla beans)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Cream butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Add flour and stir until mixed. Press into 9×13 pan lined with parchment paper.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Set aside to cool, but keep the oven available for baking off the third layer.
Layer 2 : Caramel Filling
4 TBSP butter
1 TBSP light corn syrup
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
Bring all ingredients to a boil, stirring frequently. Continue to watch carefully and stir until the mixture has thickened and become a deep brown. Pour over shortbread layer,then spread as evenly as possible. Set aside while you mix the chocolate topping.
Layer 3: Chocolate Topping
6 oz. chocolate chips
2 TBSP butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
Melt chocolate chips with butter; whisk in eggs and sugar. Add flour, baking powder, and salt, stir until just mixed. Pour the batter over the caramel layer, then return the pan to the oven for 15 minutes, or until the chocolate layer looks set.
After the cookie baking there was some inevitable cleaning, yes the very step I was hoping to avoid. But even though the caramel pan is the step with the greatest level of possible frustration (the stuff tends to be very sticky) filling the pan with water and leaving it on the stove to simmer while I finished the other clean-up allowed me to wipe the caramel off without any difficulty.