Baking is about pairing expectations with confidence…I’ve the skill to achieve success, & mistakes are just lessons learned. Pecan bars are a good example
A tale of confidence gone astray
Sometimes the negative voices in my head can be quite loud, even when reality says otherwise. Let me give you an example…we’re having a special family event this week — a party celebrating the engagement of my older daughter to her beau (yes, I said beau, just like “Little House on the Prairie.” I just like the sound of it). My future son-in-law’s mother and I are baking all sorts of hand-held desserts for the occasion, and my younger daughter is going to make one of her gorgeous cake creations. (Note: to see some of her previous cakes, go to Sweetheart Cakes and Treats and prepare to be amazed!). One of the treats my daughter asked for is pecan pie (more specifically, the Black Bottom Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie I make for Thanksgiving). Since we’re going with finger-food style here (well, except for the cake), I decided to make pecan bars, which is essentially pecan pie filling atop a shortbread crust. How hard can that be? (cue the theme to “Jaws” here…) Instead of adapting my pecan pie recipe to bar form, I decided to turn to an expert, in this case the Smitten Kitchen, for a tried and true pecan bar recipe. Run by Deb Perelman, this site is a treasure trove of wonderful recipes and introduced by Deb’s humorous and informative posts (yes, she’s who I want to be as a blogger!). Who better to turn to when you’re baking for close to 30 people and want to make a good impression on future family? A quick site search took me to Not Derby Pie Bars, a version of the (apparently) copywrited Derby Pie, served for the Kentucky Derby. This recipe had all the flavors I wanted…toasted pecans, chocolate, and a splash of bourbon for fun, all on flaky shortbread. Yummm…
** Digression Alert ** What do I call my future son-in-law’s mother? Is there a name for this relationship? “My son-in-law’s mother” (or father, for that matter) explains the relationship but is quite the mouthful to say. I’d appreciate your input!
Not Derby Pie Bars (aka Pecan Bars)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (125g)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup sugar, granulated (50 grams) or powdered (30 grams)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter (4 oz, 115g), cold is fine
- 6 Tbsp unsalted butter (85g)
- 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp bourbon, optional (but of course I'll use it)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 6 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup chocolate chips or chopped chocolate (4-1/2 oz, 130g)
- 3/4 cup walnuts or pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
- flaky sea salt on top, if desired
- Heat oven to 350°F (175°C).
- Cut two 12-inch lengths of parchment paper and trim each to fit the 8-inch width of an 8×8-inch square baking pan. Press it into the bottom and sides of your pan in one direction, then use the second sheet to line the rest of the pan, perpendicular to the first sheet. A little nonstick spray underneath helps keep the strips in place. (If you have an 8-inch square springform, you can skip this and just butter it lightly.)
Make the crust
- Combine the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into chunks, and add it to the bowl, then run the machine until the mixture forms large clumps — that’s right, just keep running it; it might take another 30 seconds for it to come together, but it will.
- Transfer the dough clumps to prepared baking pan and press it evenly across the bottom and 1/4-inch up the sides.
- Bake for 15 minutes, until very pale golden. Meanwhile, prepare the filling.
Make the filling
- Melt your butter and, if desired, brown it too, by continuing to cook the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden brown bits form at the bottom, about 5 minutes. Transfer butter to a large bowl and let it cool; you can hasten this along by setting it in the freezer for a couple minutes or stirring it over an ice water bath.
- Whisk sugars into butter until smooth, then egg, yolk, salt, bourbon (if using) and vanilla. Stir in flour until just combined, then mix in chocolate and nuts.
- Pour over par-baked crust, spreading evenly. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt before baking, if desired.
Bake the bars
- Bake bars for 20 to 25 minutes, until top is firm and golden.
- Bars are much easier to cut if you let them cool almost completely,. Once they’re cool, transfer them from the pan to a cutting board with the parchment paper sling you created. Cut into 2-inch squares or 1-inch x 2-inch rectangles
- Serve plain, with whipped cream or a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Where it went wrong…
Here’s the thing though…I tripled the recipe (my husband wanted to take something to work for an office party and I already had the oven on), so I portioned out a double batch in a 9×13” pan and a single batch in a 9”x9” pan. I also made a mistake of having the oven on too high (375°F instead of 350°F) because I had just taken out some tart shells I was blind baking, then got distracted (darn those shiny things!) and just put the bars in without thinking. I baked the bars for 20 minutes, and while the tops were firm, they were more brown than golden. (Uh, oh! Here come those critical voices!). I tasted a sample from the square pan — it was sweet and the chocolate was prominent, quite yummy in fact. However, it didn’t have that Bourbon Pecan Pie flavor (otherwise known as “pecan gooey goodness”) that I was after (Sad face). The bars from the larger pan were better (probably because there was more volume here), but I was still disappointed and kicking myself. I have to say that I’m in no way faulting the recipe for my disappointment…I expected one thing and made something else (and made a mistake in the process).
…and the happy ending
The good news is that the reviews for these pecan bars from my husband’s office mates were very positive, so I know that no one but me will probably notice the difference (take that, negative voices!). I have to remember that baking (and life in general) should be about pairing my expectations with the confidence that I have the skill to achieve success, and that mistakes are just lessons learned. I keep reminding myself of these notions…just because I didn’t get what I expected, the result isn’t necessarily worthy of self-criticism. After all, those Not Derby Pie bars I made are damn tasty!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!