Cookie bars, sliced pie squares, granola bars and crisped rice treats. Whether topped with a drizzle of chocolate or crumbly streusel, bars are the go-to treats for bake sales and school lunches, perfect for potlucks and office parties, or simply a snack when you’re on the run.
Unpretentious and unapologetically old-school, bars are the stuff of Betty Crocker and “The Joy of Cooking,” tapping into our childhood nostalgia for food enjoyed on school buses and at soccer practice. And it seems almost anything counts as a bar, so long as it’s baked or assembled in a casserole dish or baking pan – with plenty of sweetness to spare.
Cookies baked as bars have an almost cakelike quality, as oatmeal, peanut butter or chocolate chip cookies are transformed into thick wedges, crisp on top and gooey-soft in the center. Shortbread works well on its own or as a crust supporting a variety of toppings. Cover shortbread with lemon curd and powdered sugar, or glaze it with a thick coating of caramel and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt. Adding a touch of baking powder to the shortbread will lighten the crumb, making the cookie base easier to cut into bars.
Or take your favorite granola recipe and convert it into bars. Keep in mind that, as opposed to traditional granola, which is spread out on a sheet pan and slowly toasted, homemade granola bars will require additional baking time to give them a chance to set up, and they will probably be more delicate than the packaged bars you find at the store. Vary the flavorings and sweeteners to suit your tastes and use up ingredients you have on hand.
Depending on the recipe, coconut oil often makes a great vegan substitution for cookies such as shortbread or sables. For a crumbly berry bar, top a sable-inspired cookie base with jam and fresh berries or fruit, then crumble more of the cookie mixture on top. The sweet-tart notes of the fruit complement the richness of the cookie, and your guests might never guess the treat is vegan.
Sometimes the best bars are the ones that require little, if any, effort at all. “No-bake” bars are simple to make, generally calling for just a handful of ingredients. Bind cereal, crumbled graham crackers or cookies with melted marshmallow or peanut butter, pressing the mixture into a baking dish or pan. Top the bars with a layer of chocolate and a scattering of nuts or sprinkles, and refrigerate to set.
While most cookies, pies and even some cake recipes can be converted to bars, keep in mind that as the recipe changes, so too will the baking time and final temperature. Ingredient ratios may also need to be tweaked so the bars bake completely with the proper texture. It’s best to look for established recipes before converting one yourself.
Perhaps best of all, bars are a great kitchen project for kids of all ages, keeping us occupied and providing the perfect school or cubicle snack at the same time.
NO-BAKE PEANUT BUTTER BARS
30 minutes, plus chilling times. Makes 16 to 20 bars.
1 (12-ounce) jar plus 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter, divided
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
1 (12-ounce) box crisped rice cereal
2 1/2 cups chocolate chips, divided
1/2 to 1 cup roasted salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat 12 ounces peanut butter and the butter until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and beat until smooth.
2. Crush the crisped rice cereal to a coarse meal: Pulse the cereal in batches using a food processor, or place the cereal in a large sealable plastic bag and crush using a rolling pin.
3. Add the cereal to the peanut butter mixture and beat to combine. Press the mixture into a greased 13- by 9-inch baking dish. Chill until firm.
4. Place 2 cups chocolate chips in a glass measuring cup or dish and microwave, stirring every 30 seconds or so, until melted and smooth. Stir in the remaining 1/3 cup peanut butter until fully combined and smooth. Spread the melted chocolate mixture over the peanut butter bars. Sprinkle over the peanuts. Melt the remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips, then drizzle the melted chocolate over the peanuts. Chill until the chocolate is firm, then cut into bars.
From Noelle Carter
BERRY BARS (VEGAN)
1 hour, plus cooling time. Makes 12 to 16 bars.
1 1/4 cups refined coconut oil
1 cup vegan sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 teaspoons almond extract
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups almond meal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 cups (12.75 ounces) flour
1 cup berry jam or preserves
1 pint fresh berries
1 cup sliced almonds
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13- by 9-inch baking dish.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or in a medium bowl using a hand mixer, beat together the coconut oil, sugar, vanilla extract, almond extract and salt until well combined, 1 to 2 minutes.
3. By hand, stir in the almond meal, then the baking powder and flour until thoroughly incorporated. The dough will be somewhat crumbly; this is OK.
4. Place three-fourths of the dough mixture into the greased baking dish, pressing to form an even layer across the bottom of the dish.
5. Spoon the jam over the dough, spreading to form an even layer that reaches almost to the edges of the dough. Sprinkle over the berries.
6. Add the sliced almonds to the remaining dough, pressing until the mixture will clump in your hands. Crumble the mixture over the berries and jam.
7. Bake the bars until the topping is firm and lightly browned, about 45 minutes. Remove and cool on a rack before cutting into bars.
Note: From Noelle Carter. Sugar is often processed using animal bone char, which is unacceptable to many vegans. This recipe calls for vegan sugar (animal-free processing), which is generally available at health food markets as well as online.
SALTED CARAMEL SHORTBREAD BARS
45 minutes, plus cooling times. Makes 16 to 24 bars.
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
3 cups (12.75 ounces) flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a bowl using a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until creamy, 3 to 4 minutes. Mix the flour and baking powder together and beat into the butter mixture.
3. Press the dough into the bottom of a 13- by 9-inch baking dish. Bake until golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
CARAMEL AND ASSEMBLY
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
Prepared cooled shortbread
1 teaspoon very coarse sea salt, preferably Maldon
1. In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water and corn syrup, stirring until the sugar has the consistency of wet sand. Place the saucepan over high heat and cook until the sugar dissolves and begins to boil. Do not stir the sugar, as this may cause it to seize.
2. While the sugar is cooking, combine the cream and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Keep an eye on the sugar while you’re heating the cream to keep it from scorching. Cook until the butter melts, stirring it into the cream. When the mixture has come to a simmer, remove from heat.
3. Continue to cook the sugar until it darkens to a rich caramel color, 7 to 10 minutes – the sugar will darken quickly and noticeably and will smell faintly nutty. Swirl the pan as the sugar darkens to judge the true color of the caramel (the sugar may darken in patches if there are hot spots on the stove). Watch carefully, as the sugar can easily overcook at this point and burn.
4. As soon as the color is darkened to a rich caramel, remove the pan from the heat and quickly add the cream mixture in a slow, steady stream. The sugar will bubble and steam as the cream is added; be careful as both the mixture and steam are very hot. Carefully stir in the vanilla, then continue to stir until the mixture stops bubbling. Remove from heat and set aside until cool to just warm.
5. Pour the cooled caramel over the shortbread, using a spatula to push it to the edges of the dish for an even layer. Sprinkle over the coarse salt. Refrigerate until cold, then cut into bars.
From Noelle Carter