A couple of months back, His Lordship and I checked out the newest upscale barbecue joint. I was pleasantly surprised by the vegetarian chili, which was pleasantly spicy and full of chewy seitan pieces and chunks of vegetables in a not-too-thick tomato base. I was equally impressed by their pecan pie, which nimbly sidestepped all the usual dangers of the genre. It was sweet but not tooth-destroying, had quite a decently flaky crust, and was bursting with nicely-sized pecan pieces.
Good though it was, the pie reminded me of an even-better bar cookie I’d previously made. The cookies poured a decadent honey and brown sugar caramel over a buttery base and covered it with a blanket of chopped toasted nuts, taking all the charms of a really good pecan pie and ramping them up to dazzling. A week or so later, I made the bars again, and was wowed all over again.
The price to be paid for this degree of wonderfulness is getting out the dreaded candy thermometer, but I promise it’s absolutely worth it. The bourbon-infused caramel offers all the symphonic roundness the standard one-note corn syrup substrate can’t. Since the cookie base holds up much better than pie crust, I’d even venture to suggest that these bars, cut into more pie-sized slices, would make the perfect make-ahead dessert for Thanksgiving.
Honey Caramel Pecan Bars
(Adapted from Nancy Baggett, The All-American Cookie Book)
Makes 36-48 small bars
For cookie layer:
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
For caramel pecan layer:
2 cups whole pecans
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup mild honey
6 tablespoons light brown sugar
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons bourbon
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a 9 x 13 baking pan with nonstick aluminum foil, leaving several inches of overhang all around.
In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugar and egg and beat until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Whisk together the dry ingredients and add to the butter mixture, beating just until smooth. Spread the cookie dough in a thin, even layer in the lined pan. Bake on the center oven rack for 12-15 minutes, until golden in the center and a bit darker at the edges. Set on a wire rack while preparing the caramel layer.
Lower the oven temperature to 350 F. Spread the pecans on a baking sheet and toast just until they darken slightly and release a nutty aroma. Chop the pecans moderately fine and set aside.
Bring the butter, honey, brown sugar, and cream to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Insert a candy thermometer and continue to cook at a low boil until the caramel reaches 250 F. Remove from the heat and stir in the bourbon and half the chopped pecans.
Pour the caramel over the crust, spreading all the way to the edges, and sprinkle the remaining cup of pecans over the top. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until bubbling and browned. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack, then refrigerate until well chilled, at least 1 1/2 hours.
Use the overhang to lift the cookie slab out of the pan and onto a cutting board. Pull the foil away, then use a sharp knife to cut the slab into narrow bars, cleaning the sticky residue off the blade between cuts for a clean slice.
The original recipe was made with hazelnuts, which are wonderful but obviously more work. It also had a chocolate garnish on top, formed by sprinkling the still-warm bars with very finely chopped chocolate and leaving it to melt. Uncharacteristically, I found it to be a wee bit overkill, since the chocolate distracted from the clean flavor of the hazelnuts and definitely would have overwhelmed the pecans, but feel free to add that back in if you disagree.
If you don’t have a thermometer, you can test the caramel for doneness by dropping 1/2 a teaspoon of it into a glass of ice water once it thickens and starts to darken. It should form a soft ball in the water which flattens once lifted out.
The unsliced slab can supposedly be wrapped tightly and frozen for several weeks, although I have never had the necessary level of willpower to put theory to practice.