Raise the (Dessert) Bar

Easy yet delicious and decorative bar cookies elevate options for serving and gifting
Toffee Squares with Pretzel Topping and Hazelnut and Honey Diamonds

Photography Terry Brennan, Food Styling Lara Miklasevics

You may think of bar cookies as basic party fare, but if you elevate them by using delicious ingredients and attractive decorations, they make a perfect addition to holiday dessert choices. Serve them at your own get-togethers, bring to parties, or package and give as a welcome homemade gift. In these recipes originally for Real Food, baking expert and cookbook author Lauren Chattman gives visual and flavorful flair to sweet toffee with pretzels, and she uses hazelnuts to offer distinctive taste to chewy bars. These simple yet decorative sweets are superb for ringing in the holidays.

Toffee Squares with Pretzel Topping

Makes 16 servings

Not only do pretzel twists or sticks give these bars a graphic look, but their saltiness is a great contrast to the toffee below.

For the Crust
1 cup unbleached flour
1/3 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

For the Topping
½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips
1¼ cups small pretzel twists or sticks

  1. Place rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350°F. Line an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with heavy-duty foil, tucking into corners and leaving a 1-inch overhang on all sides.
  2. For the crust: In a medium bowl and using an electric mixer on low, combine flour, powdered sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Add butter and mix on low until just starting to come together in clumps. Sprinkle across bottom of pan, press into an even layer, and freeze 15 minutes. Bake 20 to 23 minutes, until golden.
  3. Meanwhile, make the topping: In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring butter, brown sugar, and salt to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 3 minutes, until thick and golden. Scrape onto crust and return to oven. Bake 5 minutes, until caramel is bubbling.
  4. Transfer to a wire rack and sprinkle over chocolate chips. Use a small, metal spatula to spread in an even layer. Arrange pretzels over chocolate. Let stand until bars are cool and chocolate is hard. Use foil to lift from pan onto a cutting board and use a sharp knife to cut into 16 squares. Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.

Hazelnut and Honey Diamonds

Makes 26 servings

The distinctive flavors of honey and hazelnuts make these chewy bars unforgettable. They are rich, so cut them into small pieces for giving or serving. Little, shiny diamonds are pretty and practical.

For the Crust
1 cup unbleached flour
1/3 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

For the Topping
1/3 cup honey
¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1½ cups skinned and toasted hazelnuts

  1. Place rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350°F. Line an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with heavy-duty foil, tucking into corners and leaving a 1-inch overhang on all sides.
  2. For the crust: In a medium bowl and using an electric mixer on low, combine flour, powdered sugar, cornstarch, and salt until the ingredients clump together when squeezed between your fingertips. (It’s OK if the mixture looks dry.) Sprinkle across bottom of pan, press into an even layer, and freeze 15 minutes. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, until edges are just golden, and remove from oven. Reduce temperature to 325°F.
  3. For the topping: In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine honey, brown sugar, and salt, stirring once or twice to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes without stirring. Add butter and cream, and simmer 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in hazelnuts.
  4. Pour topping over crust. Use back of a spoon to distribute nuts evenly. Return pan to oven and bake 18 to 20 minutes until topping is bubbling and slightly browned. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.
  5. Use foil to lift from pan onto a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to cut on the diagonal every 1½ inches, first one way then the other, to create 26 diamonds. Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.

Cook’s Note: For the easiest route with this recipe, buy skinned, pre-toasted hazelnuts. To skin and toast your own, bring 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add nuts and 2 tablespoons baking soda and boil 3 minutes. Run nuts under cold running water and rub off skin. Dry with paper towels and toast 10 minutes in a 350°F oven until golden.

Tips for Baking and Packing Bars

  • Use the right pan. Baking your bars in a smaller or larger pan than called for will throw off baking time and change the texture of the finished product.
  • Line the pan. A layer of foil makes for easy removal and cleanup. Watch the clock. The edges of bar cookies will dry out if the batter in the center of the pan bakes completely. Remove from the oven when a few moist crumbs stick to a toothpick inserted into the center.
  • Pack with discretion. For the sake of freshness, pack bars in airtight containers or cookie tins. Or use cellophane to seal them tightly in open containers such as baskets, gift bags, ceramic mugs, or baking dishes. Bars with delicate or sticky toppings should be packed between layers of parchment paper.

Nutrition info (per serving):
• Toffee Squares: Calories 217 (123 From Fat); Fat 14g (Sat. 9g); Chol 29mg; Sodium 228mg; Carb 23g; Fiber 1g; Protein 2g
• Hazelnut & Honey Diamonds: Calories 133 (77 From Fat); Fat 9g (Sat. 3g); Chol 11mg; Sodium 70mg; Carb 13g; Fiber 1g; Protein 2g

Facebook Comments

Mary Subialka
Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her school-age son, who used to eat beets and Indian food, will one day again think of real food as more than a means to a treat—and later share this with his younger brother.