- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

With so many guests invited to graduation parties, it’s best to keep them casual. A backyard cookout or a late-afternoon gathering at which both appetizers and sweets are served works well.

Regardless of the format, there is always a special dessert, and this recipe for caramel chocolate bars is perfect to serve for such occasions. These little squares are prepared with a short, buttery dough that is pressed into a pan, then baked until light-golden.

Next, a caramel layer made with butter, brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk is spread over the cooked pastry and baked. Finally, a thin coating of melted, bittersweet chocolate is spread atop the caramel. Once the chocolate is set, this glorious melange is cut into squares.

The bars can be prepared 2 days ahead so there’s no last-minute work, and the recipe can be doubled or tripled depending on your needs. Decadent and rich, these caramel chocolate bars should be a sure winner with the gown and mortarboard set.

Caramel chocolate bars

Makes 16 bars.

CRUST:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the baking pan

3 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour

CHOCOLATE AND CARAMEL LAYERS:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon light-brown sugar

14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, coarsely chopped

1/3 cup heavy or whipping cream

Arrange a rack at the center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch baking pan, then line it with a sheet of aluminum foil cut 8 inches wide and long enough to extend 3 to 4 inches over 2 sides of the pan. Butter the foil.

In a mixing bowl cream the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed, then beat in the sugar and salt. Beat 1 to 2 minutes to blend well, then beat in the flour.

Gather the dough into a ball and place in mounds, about a teaspoon each, on the bottom of the pan. With your fingers, press to form a smooth, even layer. Prick the dough with the tines of a fork. Bake until just starting to color lightly, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove pan, but retain oven temperature.

Place 1 tablespoon each butter and light-brown sugar in a heavy, medium saucepan set over medium-low heat. Stir constantly with a whisk until sugar has dissolved, about a minute. Add milk and salt and, whisking constantly, bring mixture to a slight simmer.

Cook, whisking constantly and never letting mixture come to a boil, until it thickens and becomes a light caramel color, about 10 minutes. As milk cooks, it will caramelize lightly on the bottom of the pan so you may see some flakes floating in the mixture. That’s OK.

Pour the caramel over the pastry crust, smoothing into an even layer with a metal spatula or back of a knife. Return the pan to the oven and bake 10 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature.

Place the chocolate and cream in a heavy medium saucepan set over medium-low heat. Whisk constantly until the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes. Cool 5 minutes, then pour the melted chocolate over the cooled caramel layer and spread evenly with a metal spatula or table knife. Refrigerate until chocolate is set, 30 minutes or longer.

Run a sharp knife around inside edges of the pan to loosen, then lift out pastry using the foil as an aid. Remove foil. Cut into 16 squares. (Bars can be made 2 days ahead; store in an airtight container at room temperature or in the fridge.) Serve chilled or at room temperature. Bars are good either way.

c Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “Sunday Soup” (Chronicle Books).

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