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Holiday cookies: Raising the bar, for Christmas
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's time to make Christmas cookies, if only you could find the time.

That's why home bakers should consider bar cookies, which make it easy — or easier.

Bar cookies don't take a whole day to mix, roll, bake and frost, because they are baked in a single pan and simply cut into squares or rectangles. And they are delicious to give — and receive — during the holidays, says Redge Johnson, owner of SugarDaddy Sweet Shoppe in Salt Lake City.

SugarDaddy specializes in baking mini-pies, caramels and cookies for restaurants and convenience stores. But this time of year, Johnson sets aside time to bake toffee bars for his family. He uses a recipe he learned from his maternal grandmother, Afton Taylor, who used to bake for restaurants near her Cedar City home. The toffee bars have a cookie bottom and a toffee frosting that's sprinkled with nuts and toffee chips.

"My grandmother would make these throughout the year, but mostly at Christmas," said the 45-year-old Johnson, who worked in real estate before starting his bakery about a year ago. "It really brings back Christmas memories, and my girls love them."

Updating a family favorite • Lya Becnel is a new convert. "I'm from Mexico and we don't have bar cookies," said Becnel, the pastry chef at the two Caputo's Markets in Salt Lake City. "For me, cookies are always round."

But when she met her husband, Jeff, a Louisiana native and a chef, she quickly learned to bake his grandmother's beloved pecan bars.

"His grandmother had pecan trees in her backyard, and when she knew my husband or his two brothers were coming to visit, she would make a lot," Becnel said. Because the hungry siblings would devour the treats, "she would wrap some extras up to give them as Christmas presents, too."

Becnel attended London's Le Cordon Bleu, and worked at The Grand America Hotel and Fresco Italian Cafe before moving to Caputo's Markets earlier this year.

Over time, she made a few changes to make the family recipe her own. "I tweaked grandma's recipe a bit," she admitted. " I took out the corn syrup and it's so much better."

Alt bars • Trish Withus, owner of Love Muffins Bakery, has always been "a freak" for lemon bars. After she was diagnosed with Celiac disease, she was determined to keep enjoying the sweet-tart bars she loved. She researched and tested until she came up with a shortbread cookie base made with rice flour, and potato and tapioca starch.

She also didn't want to spend time cooking the filling on the stove, so she developed a lemon curd that cooked in the oven that's delicious and saves time. Today, it's one of the best sellers at her gluten-free bakery, she said, "better than chocolate chip."

While Withus sells the cookies year round, she said the lemon bars are especially welcome at Christmas time. "People who have gluten issues often have to forgo the tradition of baking cookies at Christmas," she said. "It's sad because there is so much joy in that tradition. Having something that they can bake at this time of year makes a huge difference in the holidays."

For vegans, Wendy Hammond offers her sweet potato and ginger bar recipe. When Hammond opened Roots Cafe earlier this year, she developed the recipe because wanted a "cookie option for everyone." She sweetened the bars with agave nectar and flavored them with holiday spices. Available year-round, she said, "They go pretty quick."

Bar nirvana • Author Maria Lichty invented "the best cookie bar ever" in a moment of desperation. Lichty is the author of the popular Two Peas and Their Pod blog and a new holiday e-book Cookie Cravings.

About a year ago, she was having problems with the company that hosted her website. While her husband spent most of the weekend on the phone trying to figure out the problem, Lichty de-stressed by making cookies. She raised a basic chocolate chip bar cookie to new heights by adding a layer of creamy caramel and a sprinkle of sea salt, and baking them until they were golden brown.

"I love everything about these bars — they are pretty much perfect," Lichty says. "The sweet and salty combo gets me every time."

kathys@sltrib.com; Twitter @kathystephenson; or facebook.com/kathy.k.stephenson —

Bar cookie tips

Here are a few secrets to ensure your bars cookies are a success.

Pans • Use the exact size called for in the recipe. If the pan is too big, bars will overbake; too small and they will be doughy.

Color • Shiny metal pans are recommended. They reflect heat and prevent the bottom from getting too brown or hard. If you must use dark, nonstick or glass baking pans, check the manufacturers directions as they often recommend reducing the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Also, check the bar cookies 3 to 5 minutes before minimum baking time to prevent over-browning.

Lining • Line pans with foil and spray with nonstick cooking spray before baking. Make sure the foil extends several inches over shorter ends of the pan. When cookies are cool, use the extra foil at the ends to lift bars from pan.

Cutting • Plastic knives work best for cutting brownies and soft, sticky bars such as lemon bars. They also prevent pans from getting scratched. To prevent forsting from cracking, cut 30 to 45 minutes after frosting, when it is still warm, but set.

Traveling • If you plan on taking your cookies to a party or potluck, avoid making cookies with soft frosting as they may melt.

Storing • Bars without frosting can be packed between sheets of waxed paper and placed in re-sealable plastic containers.

Source: The Big Book of Cookies, by Betty Crocker —

Baker 411

How to find the bakers featured in this story (recipes at the end of the story):

Love Muffins Bakery • Order online at lovemuffinsbakeryslc.com or by phone 801-918-6213. Pick up at 3004 W. 4745 South, Taylorsville.

Roots Cafe • 3474 S. 2300 East, Millcreek; 801-277-6499 or rootscafeslc.com.

SugarDaddy Sweet Shoppe • 455 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City; 801-231-0797; by appointment only or visit sugardaddysweetshoppe.com.

Two Peas and Their Pod • Find the blog at twopeasandtheirpod.com. Holiday Cookie Cravings ebook available for $3.99.

Tony Caputo's Market and Deli • 314 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City; 801-531-8669 or caputosdeli.com. —

Toffee Bars

1 cup butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 egg yolk

2 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup toffee bits

Topping

2 tablespoons butter

2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate

2 tablespoons heavy whippingcream, divided

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups powdered sugar

1 egg white

Toffee bits, for garnish

Candied nuts, for garnish

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

For the bars, cream butter, sugar and egg yolk. Add vanilla and mix. In a separate bowl, combine flour and salt. Add to butter mixture until combined. Stir in toffee bits. Spread dough evenly into an oiled 11-by-14-inch shallow pan. Bake for about 25 minutes. After 15 minutes, check for bubbles, poking them with a knife to deflate.

For the topping, combine butter and chocolate in a pan, melt over low heat. Add vanilla and stir in 1 tablespoon cream. A little at a time, whisk in powdered sugar. Pour into metal bowl and place in ice bath. Add egg white and remaining tablespoon of cream. Mix until creamy. Spread evenly over the bars in the pan.

Garnish with toffee bits and candied nuts.

Servings • about 3 dozen large; or 4 dozen small bars

Source: Afton Taylor and Redge Johnson

Lemon bars

Gluten-free flour mix

4 cups white rice flour

1 1/3 cups potato starch

2/3 cup tapioca starch

Crust

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted

2 cups gluten free flour mix (from above)

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup confectioner's sugar, plus more for garnish

1/4 teaspoon salt

Filling

4 large eggs, plus 2 egg yolks

2 cups granulated sugar

1/3 cup gluten free flour mix, sifted (from above)

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 cup fresh lemon juice (about 8 lemons)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the middle of the oven. For the gluten free flour mix, combine in the white rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch in a resealable container.

To make the crust, grease a 9 x13-inch pan and line with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang on all sides; grease the foil as well.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the butter, 2 cups gluten-free flour mix, both sugars and salt until the dough comes together, about 1 minute. Scrape down the bowl, turn on medium- high and mix for 2-3 minutes. You may need to add a little water.

Press dough evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan, making sure there are no cracks. Bake for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling by whisking the whole eggs and yolks, sugar and gluten-free flour mix in a bowl until smooth. Set aside while waiting for the crust to finish. Go back and whisk it often. When the crust comes out of the oven, reduce the temperature to 300 degrees, and set the crust on a cool cookie sheet.

Move the rack to the lower 1/3 of the oven.

Whisk the lemon zest and juice into the egg mixture. Pour the filling over the warm crust and return to the oven. Bake until the filling is just set, 30 to 35 minutes.

Let the bars cool in the pan on a rack, then refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours. Lift out of the pan using the foil, and cut into squares. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.

Servings • 12-18 squares

Source: Trish, Love Muffins Bakery

Vegan sweet potato and ginger bars

3/4 cup baked sweet potato well-mashed (one large sweet potato should cover it)

1/4 cup pumpkin puree (fresh or canned)

1/4 cup canola oil

1/4 cup agave nectar

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup almond milk

2 teaspoons real vanilla extract

3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1/2 all purpose unbleached flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup crystalized ginger (chopped to little pieces)

1/2 cup semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray and 8-by-8-inch pan with non-stick cooking spray.

In medium bowl, mix together mashed sweet potato, pumpkin puree, brown sugar, agave nectar, canola oil, vanilla and almond milk until smooth.

In a separate bowl mix flours, spices, baking powder and salt. Add this to the sweet potato mixture using caution to not overmix. Fold in the chopped crystalized ginger and chocolate chips. Batter should be thick

Pour into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake 26 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few crumbs — but not dough. Cool for 20 min. Cut and serve.

Serve • 1 dozen

Source: Wendy Hammond, Roots Cafe

Pecan bars

Crust

1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

Pecan topping

13.2 ounces (about 3 1⁄3 cups) coarsely chopped pecans

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/4 cup cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

For the crust, cream butter and sugar in a bowl. Beat in egg and vanilla. Combine flour and salt in a small bowl; add to the creamed butter, mixing until just combined. Press dough into bottom of a 8 x 11.5 inch pan and freeze. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake frozen crust until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.

For the topping, bring sugars, honey, butter, cream and vanilla to a boil. Add pecans. Pour into the baked crust. Bake at 325 degrees until golden and bubbly, about 15 minutes.

Remove from oven and cool. Cut into bars.

Servings • 18 to 24 bars

Source: Lya Becnel, Caputo's Market

Holiday baking • Bar cookies for Christmas.
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