I have a feeling this post was meant for the holidays, but who says you can’t have pecan bars in January. Though not a big fan of caramel coated pecans, I quickly changed my mind after taking a bite out of this chewy confection that my sister-in-law had made. The pecans blended in so well with their brown sugar partner that you actually taste the nuttiness of the pecans and the sweetness was just there to enhance its flavor.
The first time I made this, which was a few months before I started this blog, I had no idea about the benefits of cold butter when making a crust of any kind. My crust crumbled easily and was not very helpful in holding the pecan-caramel structure. Months and a Sur La Table class on “Pies and Tarts” later, I was more mindful about keeping the butter cold when I made this recipe again. Doing this made a difference in the pie and was apparent even as I baked it, not only in the way the crust looked but in the aroma.
You have to just about strap yourself to a chair to prevent yourself from peeking into the oven, as the heady smell of toasted butter and nuts wafts from the kitchen. That first bite which you tend to gulp pretty quickly turns to regret because you then realize that your intent was to savor and not to mindlessly eat such a richly-textured pastry.
My office coworkers are always eager tasters. One of my tasters made a comment that this dessert was like a miniature pecan pie, and I do surely have a weakness for anything in the “mini” version. When typically no one would seek out the “bearer of sinful sweets left in the office pantry”, I actually had a couple of colleagues stop by my cubicle to let me know that these were the best pecan bars they have ever had.
Now that I have whet your appetite for these tasty morsels, on with the recipe! Making these is a two-step process. You need to pre-bake the crust first and then pour in the filling and then bake it again. A word of warning. You need four cups of pecans for a 13x9x12 pan, a lot of pecans in any sense, but believe me I think this is why it tastes so nutty and not just sugary.
(I got this recipe from my sister-in-law who said that she got it from a friend who in turn got it from someone else. You all know how that works. What I’m saying is if someone knows where this recipe comes from please let me know so I can properly give it credit )
For the Crust:
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter; chilled -cut into pieces
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line one 13x9x2 – inch baking pan with foil, leaving a 1-inch overhang on all sides. Butter foil. Blend flour, powdered sugar, cornstarch and salt in processor. Add butter and process until mixture begins to clump together. Press dough evenly onto bottom of foil-lined pan. Bake crust until set and light golden, about 25 minutes to 40 minutes. Remove from oven. Let stand while preparing topping. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F.
For the Filling:
1 1/4 cup light brown sugar (packed)
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup unsalted butter
4 cup pecans; coarsely chopped
1/2 cup whipping cream
2 tsp vanilla extract
Stir brown sugar, corn syrup and butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves and mixture boils. Boil about 1 minute. Add pecans and cream, and boil until mixture thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Stir in vanilla. Pour hot topping over warm crust. Bake nut-topped crust about 20 minutes in the 325°F oven. Transfer pan to rack. Cool completely in pan. (Topping will harden.) Lift foil out of pan onto cutting board. Using heavy sharp knife, cut into 1 1/2 inch diamonds.
Make sure to chop the pecans up well. Chopping the pecans into roughly thirds makes for a chewy, not cement-like topping, and will save your teeth! This allows the brown sugar liquid to seep in between the nuts and coat them evenly, allowing for a malleable but firm topping.
I have already mentioned the importance of chilled butter above. Do not overwork it with the flour in the food processor. When you attain gravel size clumps, you are done. I used a ramekin to press the flour-butter mixture into the bottom of the pan. Before tamping down, you have to wiggle the pan to more or less evenly distribute the mixture. I find that 20 minutes in the oven makes for a fairly anemic looking crust; the timing is more toward the 40 minute mark.
The brown sugar filling is not difficult to make –just gauge when the sugar has truly dissolved and then let it boil for a minute from there. When transferring the nut and brown sugar mixture to the baked crust, make an effort to evenly distribute it because there might be cases where the liquid will be trapped between a clump of nuts. Just use a spatula to transfer some nuts or tilt the pan so the liquid will move to another area. This is to prevent uneven baking. When baking the nut-topped crust, watch for the bubbling of the nut and sugar mixture; when it has reached peak bubbling and has started to subside, then it is done. This could take anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes depending upon your oven. Remember that the topping will continue to harden as it cools, so you don’t want to bake it too long.
Now, to have it with a glass of milk …