High Country Baking: Enjoy gooey, easy to make maple pecan bars
October 24, 2018
High altitude makes cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall, and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips that make baking in the mountains successful.
Sweet, gooey and good! These maple pecan bars are a resounding winner — everyone who tested them sang their praises. All agree that they have a bold taste and lush texture, like pecan pie, but with a more complex flavor due to the maple syrup, and not as cloyingly sweet. And, oh, my, so easy to make!
The ingredients you use make the difference between ho-hum and a knock-out with these cookies. Maple syrup is the first critical factor. It's graded by its color; the lighter the color (Grade A), the more delicate the taste (this is what's often served with pancakes). Grade B, which is darker, has a much more intense and complex flavor and is what brings out the best in these bars. Seek out dark or Grade B syrup; it's available in many markets (try Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or Natural Grocers).
Brown sugar is next in importance. If it's lumpy or dried out, the filling may be grainy rather than smooth, ruining the wonderful texture that contributes so much to the bar's success. Stick with fresh, moist, lump-free brown sugar. The tablespoon of bourbon, though optional, adds a subtle but pleasing layer of complexity; I recommend using it.
Maple Pecan Bars
Make in an 8- by 8-inch metal baking pan
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1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, spoon and level
¼ cup superfine granulated sugar, preferably Baker's
¼ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (one stick), cold
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup packed fresh dark brown sugar
1/3 cup dark or Grade B maple syrup
1 large egg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon bourbon, optional
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center position. Line the pan withaluminum foil, extending it several inches on two opposing sides to use as handles when you remove the baked slab of bars from the pan. Spray any exposed parts of the pan and the foil with a baking spray that contains flour. Set the prepared pan aside.
2. To make the base with a food processor: Put the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl fitted with the metal blade and pulse to combine well. Cut the cold butter into 32 pieces, add them with the vanilla extract and pulse until large, moist clumps form and no dry ingredients are at the bottom of the bowl, just before it's entirely smooth. Dump it into the prepared pan and gently pat it into an even layer.
To make with an electric mixer: Cut the butter into 32 pieces, place them in a mixing bowl and let them come to room temperature. Add the sugar, salt and vanilla and beat until well combined (stop before it gets light and fluffy, you don't want to beat a lot of air into the mixture). Add the flour, in two additions, and beat on low speed only until it's fully absorbed. Dump the dough into the prepared pan and gently pat it into a layer.
3. Bake the base until it's set and light golden, about 25-30 minutes. Remove the pan to a rack to cool completely; even the bottom of the pan should be cool.
4. Make the filling: If you've turned off the oven, bring it back to 350 degrees for at least 15 minutes before you bake in it. Add the brown sugar, maple syrup, egg, melted butter, vanilla, bourbon (if using) and salt to a mixing bowl and whisk or beat at low speed with an electric mixer to blend. Don't whisk/beat vigorously; you don't want air bubbles to form. Pour/scrape the filling onto the cooled base and gently spread it into the corners, making sure it's evenly distributed. Sprinkle the chopped pecans on top.
5. Bake until the filling — which will bubble throughout its baking — darkens and thickens and the center of the filling wobbles slightly when the pan is gently jiggled, 25-35 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. When it's cooled to warm, run a knife or offset metal spatula around the edges to loosen any stuck-on filling. Let it cool completely. Cover air-tight and store in the refrigerator for up to four days. The slab cuts most easily when chilled; use a sharp, thin-bladed, straight-edged knife. Serve warm (at its best) or at room temperature.
Vera Dawson, author of the high-altitude cookbooks Baking Above It All and Cookies in the Clouds, (available at The Bookworm in Edwards and Next Page Bookstore in Frisco), is a high-altitude baking teacher. Her recipes have been tested in her Summit County kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at email@example.com.
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