Toffee Bars and Gratitude

Yes, may I have another?

Yes, may I have another?

I fully intended to post this before Christmas, which is when I actually made these and delivered them…but you know, it’s a busy time! Even so, I think this is a great idea for any time of the year, so this post is timely.

It all started with reading about Cooking Light magazine’s “Bake a Second Batch” challenge in the December 2013 issue. The idea was to make a second batch of whatever your holiday baking entailed and give it to your favorite teacher, worker, policeman, etc. This brought to mind that I really wanted to do something to say thanks to the firemen and first responders that came to our home when lightning struck last summer. So in the midst of holiday preparations, I decided to make these Turtle Bars from a recipe I wanted to try that I’d saved in my files from the 2003 issue of Bon Appétit magazine.

The bars came out well, but not like Turtle Bars at all really, in that the caramel wasn’t soft. Yet in spite of being really hard to cut, the bars had a wonderful dark chocolate coating with a hard toffee and pecan layer on top of a delicious crust. We loved them, so I packaged them up and got them ready to go to the fire station.

Now I’m going to digress and tell you a little story, because there are a few things I learned that one must consider when attempting to deliver goodies to a fire station. First and foremost, these guys are really busy. They not only respond to fires, but also are first responders to 911 calls to aid in any emergency. And as a result, they are very hard to catch.

Our first attempt to deliver the goods was met with an open, but completely empty, fire station. Not wishing to enter uninvited or leave the plate, we decided to come back the next morning. Fortunately, these bars keep well when wrapped well.

The next day around lunch time, we decided to try, try again, piled into the car and headed back to the station. (This particular fire station is about 1 mile from our house, and they actually heard the explosion when the lighting hit our home.) As we rounded the first corner on our way, I heard a siren, looked at my husband and said “surely that isn’t our firemen on their way somewhere.” And in the very next moment, they passed us in a huge ladder truck followed by an emergency vehicle and sped down the road in the opposite direction. Not deterred, we drove on to the station to see if anyone stayed behind to mind the store. Foiled again.

So on to the grocery we went, being halfway there already. Thirty minutes later, we had to drive back past the station to go home, since it is along our most traveled route.

We stopped a third time, knocked on the back door and a charming young man answered, hurrah! The smell of something good to eat for lunch was wafting out of the doorway from behind him, and he was still chewing as he came the door. (These guys cook regularly for themselves, you know, and must eat quickly before the next call.)

We stated who we were, where we lived and that we were there because they’d come to our aid in a time of need, and we wanted to say thank you again by dropping off a goodie, and wish them a happy holiday. The young man called out towards the back room for his Superior to come forth, and out came…the very guy who lead the team that responded to our call in June! He remembered us, shook our hands and said how very lucky we were that our house didn’t catch on fire (and we know it). He was also quite the charmer, and seemed so profusely pleased and grateful to be remembered. We were assured that firemen always LOVE sweets and they are welcome any time, and at that very moment he was finishing up lunch, so this would be dessert. Perfect timing.

All-in-all it was just a great feeling to reconnect, reach out and do something nice for someone as a surprise.

And more importantly in some ways, it reminded me that very few of us—certainly I am guilty of this—think about finding ways to do something nice for someone, just because. We get so wrapped up in our day to day lives, or the holidays, or whatever…that we just don’t think of it. I, for one, plan to do this again. In fact, I’d like to start with resolving to do it twice a year at least, and am already thinking on who my next recipient (victim) of kindness might be. It’s a good thing.

So on to this easy recipe for toffee bars and a few tips on making them. You can read the original recipe from the link by name in bold above, and I’m going to reprint it below with my judgement calls and the rename of “Toffee Bars,” because that’s what they were. Do enjoy these if you make them…they are addictive, so perhaps best made for a party or a crowd—or even better, your next intended kindness victim! Have a happy weekend.

Toffee Bars, Slightly Adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes about 70

2 cups all purpose flour
1 3/4 cups light brown sugar (packed), or a mix of 3/4 dark brown and 1 cup light brown
(Note: I used the mix because that is what I had. Many commenters like the light brown only because it doesn’t get so dark, especially the crust)
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

3 tablespoons whipping cream

1 cup pecan halves, toasted
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
(Note: the original recipe calls for 3/4 cup chips which won’t begin to spread and cover this. If you need more than I’ve recommended, add it, but keep in mind the extra sweet factor.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Mix flour, 1 cup of the brown sugar and 3/4 cup of the butter in a processor until well blended and crumbly. Press mixture evenly into an ungreased 9 x 13 x 2 inch metal baking dish. Bake until the crust is light golden, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and maintain oven temperature.

Meanwhile, bring remaining 3/4 cup brown sugar, 3/4 cup butter and cream to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Remove caramel from heat.

Sprinkle the pecans over the crust, then pour the caramel evenly over the pecans. Bake until bubbles form and color darkens, about 20 minutes. (Note: here is where you go from Turtle to Toffee. At the full 20 minutes recommended in the original recipe, the caramel will be hard crack stage…which I liked. For a softer version, only bake for 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and sprinkle the chocolate chips evenly over. Let stand until the chocolate melts, about 5 minutes. Using an offset spatula, spread the chocolate evenly over top. Chill bars until the chocolate sets, about 20 minutes. (I didn’t have to do this because the house was so cool at the time.) Cut into 1 inch squares. (Note: If you take this to the full toffee stage, as I did, these will be hard to cut. Use a very sharp knife and take your time, and you’ll be rewarded. The cut squares will be a little jagged, as toffee is when you break it. If you do the “Turtle” route, your squares should cut more cleanly and the caramel with be softer.)

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Oh My, It’s a Pie!

slice5When I was a kid, it was hard for me to eat pie.

That sounds strange, doesn’t it? But the truth is that at it’s best, pie is quite rich, not to mention the things we top it with. And for some reason as a kid I had problems with very rich foods (and spicy foods) and pie was at the top of that list. In fact, it’s only been in recent years that I’ve come to really enjoy pie and actually crave it sometimes. I still have to be somewhat careful, but I can happily enjoy a piece now and then without trouble…which maybe IS trouble in another way, come to think of it!

All this to say that one reason you haven’t seen much pie other than my mom’s blueberry pie on this blog is that I don’t make it very often for the reasons I just stated. So recently when we were participating in a gathering, I needed to make a dessert. And it just so happened that the friends we were gathering with had given me this wonderful and interesting cookbook. It seemed only right that I should make something from this cookbook to share with them, and that’s how I ended up making this Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie.

This recipe is adapted from one in Martha Stewart’s very recent cookbook, Martha’s American Food, which celebrates foods from different regions in the U.S., coast to coast. It’s a great read and filled with fun tidbits of background information on how these dishes came to be. This particular pie is one associated with the South, and it’s a pie I’ve wanted to make for a long time.

I have to say this makes a beautiful and delicious pie, but words can’t really describe how good this is. And making her crust is key. I don’t make a lot of pie crust and quite frankly, it’s usually my least favorite part of a pie, but this one is terrific. Imagine this sweet filling, enhanced by a touch of bourbon and the crunch of beautiful toasty pecans, with a thin layer of rich chocolate on the bottom, all bound together by a buttery and flavorful crust. Uh, huh…I know you want it. Yessireee, good eating. I mean if you’re gonna make and eat a piece of pie with all of those calories, you might as well go for broke. I served this topped with a dollop of locally made Fleur de Sel Vanilla ice cream and that little kick of salt and vanilla really brought forth the nuttiness of the pecans and enhanced all of the flavors. A work of art.

Then, just to see if we could make a great thing any better, we revisited the pie with a dollop of whipped cream, scented with a little bourbon…oh, my!

So far I’m loving this cookbook, though I’m certainly not being paid to say so, nor am I a reviewer. It has a lot of great recipes in it and is just plain fun, especially if you live in the U.S. or love old-fashioned, American regional foods. And because I love it, I’m adding it to my bookshelf on this blog. Check it out!

In the case of this pie, I did find the need to adapt ever so slightly, as sometimes instructions and proportions just aren’t all they seem to be, or should be, in my opinion. All a part of cooking.

Is there anything more inviting than a freshly baked pie? No, perhaps not.

Is there anything more inviting than a freshly baked pie? No, perhaps not.

Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie
(Slightly adapted from Martha’s American Food)
Makes one 9-inch pie which serves 6-8

Crust, makes two and you’ll need one for the pie, freeze the other:
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon regular salt
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of cold unsalted butter cut into small pieces
1/4 cup water, plus 1-2 tablespoons more if needed

In a food processor, pulse together the flour, salt and sugar just to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is coarse and crumbly with bits of butter still evident. Drizzle the 1/4 cup of water evenly over the dry mixture and pulse until the dough just begins to come together, it shouldn’t be wet or sticky. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time if the mixture is too dry and isn’t coming together. I found that one more tablespoon over the 1/4 cup did the trick. Remove the dough, shape into two equal disks, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled. Can be frozen for a month and thaw before using. (I found that the dough was quite hard after being in the fridge, and I had to bring it back to room temp to roll it out.)

For the Filling and making the pie:

Flour for dusting and rolling out the pie crust and 1 disk of pie crust dough from the above recipe
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated cane sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons good quality aged bourbon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans
3/4 cup whole pecan halves
3/4 cup coarsely chopped semisweet chocolate
1 tablespoon heavy cream and 1 egg yolk for egg wash

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly flour a flat surface and roll out the dough into an 11-inch round about 1/8″ thick. (If dough is too stiff, let it come back to room temperature and then roll it out.) Wrap the dough around the rolling pin to transfer to a 9-inch pie plate and fit the dough into the pan, pressing into the edges of the pan. Trim the dough to about 1 inch all the way around the pan, fold it under and crimp the edges decoratively, pinching and pressing with your thumb and fingers, or use a fork. Prick the bottom of the crust several times with a fork. If it’s warm outside and dough is soft, return to the fridge for about 15 minutes.

Crust rolled and draped. Pinch together any cracks before crimping.

Crust rolled and draped. Pinch together any cracks before crimping.

Line the pie shell with parchment, pressing into the sides of the pan. Fill the parchment with pie weights or dried beans. Bake 20 minutes (you may need to cover the edges of the crust with aluminum foil if they start to brown). Remove the parchment and pie weights and bake another 5 minutes until the crust is dry but not turning brown. Transfer to a wire rack and allow it to cool for at least 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.

"Blind bake" your crust, cool it and then fill it. Cover your crust edges as needed to keep them from browning too much.

“Blind bake” your crust, cool it and then fill it. Cover your crust edges as needed to keep them from browning too much.

In a medium bowl, combine the melted butter, sugar, flour, corn syrup, eggs, bourbon and salt. Stir in the chopped pecans and the chocolate. Pour the filling into the crust and decorate the top with the remaining pecan halves. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and the cream and brush over all the exposed edges of the pie. Bake the pie until just set in the center and the crust is golden, about 40 minutes. Tent with foil and/or cover the edges of the crust if browning too quickly. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and cool completely before serving. Cut into 6 to 8 wedges. Top with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream…or eat it plain in all it’s glory.

More pie, please!

More pie, please!

Holy Mole, It’s Chili!

This delicious chili starts off with a multi-colored fiesta of bell and chipotle peppers.

The fact that the first touch of cool weather turns my thoughts immediately to chili is one of the reasons I love the fall season so very much. I crave chili, and I happen to make a really mean chili—if I do say so myself! It’s deceptively healthier than most, being filled with veggies and two kinds of fiber-loaded beans. It’s also made with ground turkey breast instead of beef.

I can hear some of the groans out there…”oh, no,” you’re saying out loud, “not another turkey substitution for a traditional meat dish! Can’t this girl leave a good thing alone and just use beef in her chili?”

Well, yes…I can, but this particular recipe is REALLY better with turkey, and I know this because I first concocted the recipe with beef. Continue reading