Today, Four Weeks of Cookies continues with a non-traditional selection. This 'cookie' is of the bar variety- made up of a layer of buttery shortbread, topped with a layer of dulce de leche and caramelized peanuts, and finished with a layer of rich chocolate and a sprinkling of nuts. It's like a grown-up version of a Snickers bar (hence the name). If all of that sounds appetizing to you, then congratulations, you're a sane human being. If not, then get the heck out of here, because these bars are freakin' delicious and you don't deserve them.
Dulce de leche, Spanish for 'candy of milk,' is a magical substance made by caramelizing sweetened milk. The milk is slowly heated until it changes color and flavor. The resulting confection is generally a sweet spread, similar to caramel in flavor and texture, but slightly more creamy and fluid (although it can take other forms which are less spreadable). It's very popular in South America, but can be found in plenty of desserts in the US, including an excellent ice cream by Häagen-Dazs.
Now before you start stressing about making dulce de leche, calm yourself. The dulce de leche in the recipe is store-bought (although feel free to make your own!). It can be found at any specialty grocery store, such as Whole Foods or Fresh Market, and some regular grocery stores as well, depending on the selection and quality of your local store.
The other parts of the cookie, shortbread, caramelized peanuts, and chocolate, are all homemade. The shortbread and the chocolate are a cinch, but caramelizing the peanuts can be a bit tricky. Keep in mind that caramelizing anything is a challenge, so be patient. I burnt a few of mine and ended up throwing them away, but it happens to everyone, so don't give up. However, if the idea of the peanuts is too daunting for you, no biggie, just buy a nice bag of peanuts instead.
I think the hardest part about these bars was actually figuring out how to cut them. Pat and I had eaten 75% of them before I finally figured out how to cut one without totally destroying it and sending squishy dulce de leche all over the place. DO NOT press down on the bar with a knife, as if you were cutting something hard, like an apple. The key is to slowly and carefully saw your way through the chocolate layer, then once you've reached the middle layer, you can press down on the knife to cut through the dulce de leche and shortbread.
These bars are best served slightly below room temperature, but not straight out of the fridge- they'll be too cold. When they're too cold, they lose a lot of their flavor. I think they're great eaten solo, but they also go well with ice cream.
Makes 16 squares
1 c all-purpose flour
1/4 c sugar
2 tbsp confectioners' sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
1/3 c sugar
3 tbsp water
1 1/2 c salted peanuts
1 1/2 c store-bought dulce de leche
7 oz bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 stick unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into 8 pieces
Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 F. Butter an 8-inch square pan or spray with cooking spray.
To make the crust, toss the flouur, both sugars and salt into a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add the pieces of cold butter and pulse about 12-15 times, until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Pour the yolk over the ingredients and pulse until the dough forms clumps and curds- stop before the dough comes together in a ball.
Put the dough into the buttered pan and gently press it evenly across the bottom of the pan. Prick the dough all over with a fork and put in the oven to bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it takes on just a little color around the edges. Transfer to a cooling rack and allow to cool to room temperature before adding the filling.
Next make the filling. Have a parchment-lined or silicone mat-lined baking sheet at the ready, as well as a long-handled wooden spoon (you'll be cooking sugar that will climb to over 300 F, so you'll want to keep as far away from it as possible) and a medium (roughly 2-qt) heavy-bottomed saucepan. Put the sugar and water in the saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Keeping the heat fairly high, continue to cook the sugar, without stirring, until it just starts to color. Toss in the peanuts and immediately start stirring. Keep stirring. to coat the peanuts with the sugar. Shortly they will be covered with sugar and turn white- keep stirring until the sugar turns back to caramel (note, for me this didn't happen and the peanuts started to burn, so I took them off the heat at this point). When the peanuts are coated with a nice deep amber caramel, remove the pan from the heat and turn the nuts out onto the baking sheet, using the wooden spoon to spread them out as best you can. Cool the nuts to room temperature.
|As you can see, my peanuts didn't quite caramelize properly|
When they are cool enough to handle, separate the nuts or break them into small pieces. Divide the nuts in half. Keep half of the nuts whole or in large pieces for the filling, and finely chop the other half for the topping.
Spread the dulce de leche over the shortbread base and sprinkle the whole candied nuts or large pieces over the top. Press the nuts into the dulce de leche, so that they are not sticking up above the layer of dulce de leche.
To make the topping, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl in microwave, working in 30 second increments and stirring thoroughly between each go in the microwave. When the chocolate is melted, add the pieces of butter and stir until melted and fully blended into the chocolate.
Pour the chocolate mixture over the dulce de leche, smoothing it with a long metal icing spatula, then sprinkle the finely chopped nuts over the top. Slide the pan into the fridge to set the topping, about 20 minutes. If you'd like to serve the squares cold, keep refrigerated for about 3 hours. Otherwise, remove from the fridge and cut (see method in the intro)
Again, I recommend serving slightly below room temperature.