Monday, May 14, 2012

Big Winner: Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars

When I was a kid, caramel popcorn was the ultimate decadent treat my mom would make. I know this doesn't sound very fancy, but you have to go with me here. It was the era of the air-popper--that contraption that most assuredly removes all flavor and joy from popcorn--and my family was pretty big into popcorn. So to have a big bowl of air-popped popcorn smothered in homemade goopy salty caramel was pretty special. This was Saturday night stuff, if you know what I mean. I have fond memories of my mom standing at the stove doing something mysterious with sugar. It involved no measuring cups and a wooden spoon, and suddenly, there was caramel, ready to be poured over the popcorn. After she laid out newspaper on the floor of the family room, Erin and I were invited to sit on the papers and enjoy our popcorn while watching some movie (probably Meatballs). We were advised to touch NOTHING. And over the course of about three minutes, Erin and I worked our way through the bowl, first picking out the especially goopy pieces, and then the moderately goopy pieces, and finally the sad pieces that didn't get any goop at all.

It wasn't until just a couple of years ago that I realized how odd it was that my mom made us sit on newspapers. As though we were DOGS being POTTY TRAINED. But as long as I got to eat caramel corn, I didn't care.

So when it came time to decide what to make for last week's bake-off, I knew it had to be something caramel. As I perused my cookbooks and various sites for inspiration, I knew I'd hit the jackpot  when I found the Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars on good ole Martha Stewart's site.
The recipe has shockingly few ingredients and really doesn't take that long to make. If you know how to make caramel. Which I didn't. (That was my mom's job!!) While the super-simple shortbread is in the oven, you're supposed to get started on your caramel. But before I got started, I read through all of the comments from users on Martha's site, and the common theme seemed to be this: the caramel is easy to eff up. Uh oh, I thought. I'm pretty good at effing up baked goods, so these comments seem likely to apply to me. Cautiously, I combined my sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small pot and I got to whisking. They say to use a pastry brush to occasionally wet the sides of the pot with water, which will keep sugar crystals from forming. It also says that your sugar is supposed to turn a deep golden brown after about ten minutes. Let it be known: neither of these things happened. In fact, ten minutes into it my sugar had turned completely clear and was the consistency of water. I knew something was wrong, so I dumped the contents of the pot into the trash can. When it hardened up over the scraps from that night's dinner, I realized what had happened: I had made rock candy! So I moved on to Plan B: Just put the sugar in the pan with no water and heat it slowly over medium. I could feel the wisdom from my mother wash over me...that's what she was doing at the stove! That's why there were no measuring cups and no recipe! That's really easy.

After about 5 minutes of occasional stirring, the sugar starts to turn light and fluffy and a little bit tan, and then another 5 minutes later, it starts to melt and get sticky, and 5 minutes after that, you have caramel. Done! Fold in your butter, cream, and chocolate and you have the flavor of happiness in your house.
So I admit, I felt a bit like a cheat because the competition had a cookie theme and these cookies are more like candy. Or bars. Or Twix Bars, to be more accurate. And I had considered doing a more traditional cookie for the bake about a lovely ranger cookie? (Seriously, coconut, chocolate chips, and krispy cereal are a delicious combination.) But if I wanted to win, I knew I needed to bring the goop. And damn it, this was my fifth bake-off! I wanted to win already!
Unfortunately, I had a headache on the day of the bake-off (probably from eating too much caramel), so I didn't get to try anyone else's cookies except for these cute little cream wafers cuz they were so cute I could not resist. (And they were delish!) So when my name was announced as the FIRST PRIZE WINNER, I must admit that I did not know if mine were actually better, because I tried no one else's. But I don't really care because I WON. FINALLY!

And now you can be a winner, too. Here's the recipe:

Martha Stewart's Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars

For the Crust:
 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temp, plus more for parchment
1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Chocolate Caramel:
10 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate chips (about 2 cups)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make the crust: Line a 9-inch square baking pan with parchment, leaving an overhang on all sides; butter parchment, excluding overhang. Beat butter and brown sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add flour and table salt, and beat until just combined. Press dough evenly into pan, and bake until lightly browned, about 30 minutes.

To make the chocolate caramel, place chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat granulated sugar a in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring now and then, until amber, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Add butter, cream, and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring until smooth. Pour over chocolate. Let stand for 2 minutes. Stir to combine, and let stand until cool, about 10 minutes.

Pour mixture over crust. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, or overnight. Run a knife around edges; lift parchment to remove whole bar from pan. Sprinkle with kosher salt. Trim edges, and cut into tiny bite-size bars so you don't eat too much and get a tummy ache.


  1. I am totally making these cookies. Perhaps this weekend. Perhaps tonight! (Probably not tonight.)

  2. Also, wow. I'd forgotten all about sitting on the newspapers to eat our caramel popcorn! What a weird thing for her to do. It's not like the caramel was all drippy -- it'd just make our hands sticky, right? It's kind of amazing she didn't make Dad sit on the floor too.

  3. Congrats on the win! If I was eating carbs right now I'd SO be making this recipe tonight. Gotta say I'm relieved the bake-off was cookie themed which lets me off the hook a little for not supplying you with the promised Magical Icing Spreader. Life has sorta been lifing-it-up for me these past few months, as it tends to do. But never fear! Sometime soonish, and without warning, a Magical Icing Spreader will enter your life and nothing will ever be the same again.


    p.s. gosh, didn't mean for that to sound so foreboding
    p.p.s. Oven Caramel Corn was a treat for us growing up, too! Every so often my mom would make a HUGE batch and, once cooled, would put it in a (clean) garbage bag, from which we'd gobble it up with delight. Between four siblings, it wouldn't last long. Imagine my surprise when, for my first semester away from home as a college freshman, I opened a carepackage with the ENTIRE BAG of caramel corn. ALL FOR ME!! hahahaaaaaaaa

    Here is the recipe, direct from the now rumpled & stained card I made (in pencil!) for my 7th grade Home Ec class:

    Oven Caramel Corn

    2 c brown sugar
    1 c butter
    1/2 c dark corn syrup
    1 t salt
    1/2 t baking soda
    5-6 quarts popped corn

    Combine sugar, butter, syrup & salt. Boil 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in soda. It will bubble up kinda scarily. Pour immediately over popcorn in a large roasting pan and mix well, being careful not to burn yourself on the molten sugar. Bake in slow oven (200-250 degrees), stirring every 15 minutes, for 1 hour or more until the kernels pass the "sticky phase" to the "crunchy phase" and begin to separate. Cool. Store in tightly covered container. Freezes well.

    Note: the crunchy phase is the key to awesomeness

    1. Wow, this is so cool! A new caramel corn recipe! My teeth are falling out of my head just thinking about this one (I really appreciate the addition of the corn syrup. Nice!)

  4. oooh, two good recipes - one in the post, one in the comments!

  5. The reason for newspapers? I didn't want that sticky goo all over the carpet! And you're right, I should have put papers around Dad's chair - remember the stains?

    1. I bet Dad would have totally gone for the newspapers. He might have even tucked one into the front of his shirt! You know, it's not too late to start, mom...just sayin'.

  6. Hi everyone! Here is a very special tip from Erin, who made the caramel treats:

    OK, so I'm reading the recipe and I see the part about melting the sugar in a "small" saucepan, and even though my saucepan seems, well, too small, I figure what the hell, maybe when the sugar melts it takes up way less space? And using a bigger pan screws up the melting process somehow? Well, the sugar melting part was great. I was shocked at how easy it was! Why didn't Mom make caramel popcorn ALL THE TIME?? Then I took it off the heat and added the cream and HOLY SHIT the caramel went nuts and started frothing all over the place. I got the kitchen-panic! I think I started shrieking? And yet I somehow managed to keep my shit together and add the butter and the salt and not spill caramel all over the floor. I did burn the crap out of my thumb, but whatever, it's been years since I had a good kitchen burn! The sauce got all over the top of the stove, but it was surprisingly easy to clean up.

    Anyway, despite the craziness, the caramel was PERFECT and when I poured it over the chocolate chips it all came together great. Since I made the cookies in an 8x8 pan (instead of 9x9) I had some chocolate-caramel left over and I used some of it for dipping strawberries and OMG SO GOOD.

    All in all: success! But next time I'm going with my gut and using the bigger saucepan.