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January 17, 2020
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The caramel challenge | The Mixing Bowl

By SARAH RINGLER

These caramel pie bars bars have a sugary pie crust base covered with a sweet, crackly, gooey caramel topping. With pecans and chocolate chips added, it resembles a chocolate pecan pie. Unlike a pie, these bars can be kept in an airtight tin for a week. 

The challenging part of this recipe is making the caramel. Caramelization is a chemical process that takes sugar and turns it into a smooth, sweet, brown and nutty substance. Even onions have sugars that can take up to 30-45 minutes to caramelize over low heat. You can make runny cola flavoring, soft or hard caramel, but it all depends on the amount of sugar in the food, temperature, cooking time and other additives. 

One problem is that shortly after caramelizing, sugar can burn into a sticky, black and smelly mess. It seems to take forever for the sugar mixture to start caramelizing.  Patience is required. In this recipe, you want a caramel sauce consistency, so it takes about ten minutes. 

This recipe is adapted from a combination of one from Ali Rosen’s “Bring It!” cookbook, and another from Auguste Escoffier’s School of Culinary Arts website at [email protected] Because these bars are so sweet and rich, I cut them into small two-inch square bars. 

Caramel pie bars  

Crust:

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

½ teaspoon salt

¾ cup salted butter, room temperature

1 ½ cup flour

Caramel:

¾ cup sugar

¼ cup water

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Filling: 

2/3 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

1 cup coarse pecans or chocolate chips (or combine the two)

Caramel (recipe above)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan or cover the bottom of the pan with aluminum foil and butter it. 

Make the crust by mixing sugars, salt and softened butter in a bowl. Stir in the flour but do not overmix. As soon as it forms a dough, make it into a ball and remove it from the bowl. 

Press the dough evenly into the bottom of the baking pan. Bake for 15-18 minutes until edges have just started to brown. Remove from oven and let cool.

When the crust is baking, make the caramel. In a deep pan, combine sugar with ¼ cup of water and put on medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves and mixture comes to a boil in about 3-4 minutes. Do not rush. 

When the mixture boils, turn down heat until it simmers and let it cook for 5-7 minutes more.  Watch carefully. You can carefully brush down the sugar crystals that form on the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in a little water. Swirl the pan around a bit and watch until the mixture begins to turn golden brown or amber. 

At this point, add the cream and vanilla.  It will bubble up. Bring the mixture back to a simmer and stir it constantly for 3 more minutes. Remove from heat and pour the caramel into a bowl. Let cool for at least 5 minutes.

In another bowl make the filling by beating together the brown sugar and eggs. Add the cooled caramel and mix together well. Pour over the crust. Sprinkle the pecans and/or chocolate chips on the top and bake for 25-30 minutes until filling has completely set. 

Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 30 minutes. Cut into bars and serve.

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Sarah Ringler is a retired schoolteacher. She worked as a cook for 8 years before being a teacher, and also taught a cooking class at Pajaro Middle School for several years. She comes from a long line of serious cooks and passed the tradition on to her children, grandchildren, students and, hopefully, her readers.

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