While I've always been a sucker for the pomp and circumstance of it all -- the movies, the sentimental ornaments we hang on my parent's flocked Christmas tree, the alcohol -- this year I've let myself be particularly bitten by the spirit of the season (
Christmas (and the holiday season in general) feels like what life would be like in an ideal world. Where calories don't count. Where people take time for each other. Where miracles happen. Even if those miracles are happening to Hugh Grant and his romantic counterpart in "Love Actually."
It's a rather freeing time of year though. Having the excuse to do things that would seem completely irrational and impractical, in say, July. Buying my nieces obnoxiously pink outfits that cost more than the clothes I purchase for myself, drinking my morning tea out of a hideous snowflake mug, and making and eating six different kinds of cookies and confections.
It's all unnecessary, of course, but I love that it seems completely normal to look at the containers filled with chocolate covered shortbread cookies, fudge nut bars, spice krinkles, marshmallow cookies, walnut sea salt caramels, and decide that there's still something missing. In this instance, cashew butterscotch bars, a recipe I've had tagged in Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook ever since my friend Ali gave it to me two Christmases ago.
I was drawn to the recipe immediately, as I am with all things that contain cashews and sugar, yet had never found an appropriate time to make them. Likely because I knew that once I did, I would be completely helpless to their wiles and not able to rely upon the justification "but it's the holidays" as I tore into my third one in so many hours.
These bars are slightly reminiscent of seven layer bars, sans all the layers. The crust is salty and buttery, and, once ensconced with the butterscotch mixture, takes on an almost caramel-like chewiness. While cashews are a rarity in desserts, here, they are such an organic compliment it seems a tragedy that they aren't utilized more often.
In the interests of full disclosure, I've eaten five of them in the past 48 hours, amidst a sea of other cookies that I similarly had no need for outside of this alternate universe that we call the holidays. It's a rather wonderful thing -- this fleeting period of time where life really is wonderful.
Cashew Butterscotch Bars
Adapted from Amanda Hesser's Essential NY Times Cookbook
Notes: I had serious urges to add coconut flakes to the cashew butterscotch layer of these outrageously addictive bars, but restrained myself for this first outing (there may be experimentation down the line). The only change I made was to halve the recipe and bake it in an 8x8 square pan rather than a 13x18 cookie sheet, something that I would continue to do for subsequent bakings of these bars. Nobody should have three dozen+ of these available at any given time. Even when it is the holidays.
1 stick plus 2 3/4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
5 ounces butterscotch chips, preferably Hershey's
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 3/4 teaspoons water
1 1/4 cups salted cashew pieces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8x8 square baking dish with butter, taking care to cover both the bottom and the sides. (These bars do have a tendency to adhere to things... dishes, teeth, thighs, so it's important to make sure the baking vessel is thoroughly greased.)
Place 1 stick + 1 tablespoon of butter and the brown sugar in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until thoroughly combined and smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt to lighten the texture of the flour and make it easier to incorporate. With the mixer on the lowest speed, gradually add the flour + salt to the sugar mixture. Mix until well-incorporated, but not until the dough forms a a ball. The dough should still be crumbly with pea-sized pieces.
Gently press the dough into the prepared pan. Don't pack it in or fret if the dough is not perfectly smooth -- it will still look a bit crumbly and that's okay! Just make sure there is an even layer. Bake for 5 minutes and then remove from the oven and use a fork to poke holes throughout the crust. (Essential for the butterscotch layer to seep through and create that utterly delicious caramelization.) Return the pan to the oven and bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes (mine took at least 15... perhaps nearly 18) or until the dough is lightly browned and no longer soft to the touch. (Note: Mine never got completely hard to the touch, but did brown nicely so I judged more by appearance than by feel.) Remove the pan from the oven and set on a cooling rack.
In a small saucepan, combine butterscotch chips, water, corn syrup, and remaining 1 3/4 tablespoons of butter. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until the butterscotch chips are completely melted, approximately 5 minutes. Pour the topping over the crust, taking care to ensure it's spread into an even layer. Sprinkle the cashew pieces over the top, gently pressing into the butterscotch layer.
Return to the oven and bake for an additional 12 to 16 minutes or until the top is bubbly and cashews are lightly browned. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before cutting into bars.