May It Please the Palate ...

I won the office cooky exchange with these

Nine entries. Competition was fierce, and voting tense. But these Salted Caramel Squares, from Food & Wine magazine, were the hit of the office holiday cooky exchange.

It was a pretty easy concept: a buttery crust with a thick layer of caramel topping. I must give the credit to the recipe. I certainly did not do it justice, due to my lack of two critical kitchen tools: a candy thermometer, and pie weights. “What the hell are pie weights?” I wondered. I guessed way wrong. Should have Googled the answer sooner.

Pie weights are sort of like ceramic marbles that are used to line pastry that is “blind baked,” or pre-baked without filling. The weights are laid on top of the pastry, on top of parchment paper, to keep the pastry crust from pulling away from the pan. A few ounces weight is all one needs. Bakers substitute beans, or coins.

In my case, I used a cast iron pan. I think that explains why my crust was about half the thickness of the photo. At least the crust didn’t go anywhere. Poor thing couldn’t breathe.

My other error was not having a candy thermometer. Therefore I had to eyeball 240°. After I compared my finished product to the photo in the recipe book, I think I was about 30° short. My caramel was so runny that it slithered off the top of the squares during the 15 minute trip to the office. A bit of reshaping, and refrigeration, salvaged them before the big contest.

But dang, that vanilla bean salted caramel is delicious stuff. I even put the extra in my yogurt for a midnight snack.

Hope you have better luck. See my tips at the end of the recipe for the wisdom born of morning after regrets.

Salted Caramel Squares
– Zoe Nathan, Huckleberry Bakery, Santa Monica

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg white, beaten

2 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the short sides. In a large bowl, using a handheld mixer at low speed, cream the butter. Beat in the confectioners’ sugar. Add the whole eggs and beat until incorporated, then beat in the flour and salt. Press the pastry into the prepared pan in an even layer, 1/4 inch thick. Freeze until firm, 10 minutes.

2. Line the pastry with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. Bake for 35 minutes, until just set. Carefully remove the pie weights and parchment. Brush the shell with the egg white and bake for 20 minutes longer, until golden and cooked through. Let cool.

3. In a saucepan, bring the cream, vanilla bean and seeds to a simmer. Cover; keep warm.

4. In a large, heavy saucepan, stir the sugar into 1/4 cup of water. Simmer over moderate heat, without stirring, until a deep amber caramel forms, 7 minutes.

5. Remove the caramel from the heat and carefully add the cream. When the bubbling subsides, stir in the butter. Insert a candy thermometer and cook over moderately high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the caramel reaches 240°, 10 minutes. Discard the vanilla bean and stir in the salt. Pour the caramel over the shell. Refrigerate until firm, 4 hours or overnight; bring to room temperature. Remove the bar from the pan using the parchment overhang; cut into squares.

Regrets and Do-Over Fantasies: My squares were actually triangles, due to the irregular shape of the pastry sheet, thanks to my cast iron weight. After cutting, I topped them with whipped cream for that “lipstick on a pig” effect. I wondered how I could have made them neater (besides actually following the recipe). One thought was to roll out the dough and press circles into a mini-muffin tin, and pre-bake for about 12 minutes at 350° before filling. I also thought it might have been fun to put in a layer of chocolate ganache (bittersweet chocolate melted with heavy cream), then chilling to set before adding the caramel (or vice-versa). Tip 1: if you go the mini-muffin tin route, butter the heck out of the pan, or line each cup with parchment paper. (They even make parchment paper baking cups these days.)

However, like litigation and indeed life, you may not get that do-over. So get it right the first time. If you’re lucky, you might just win that office cooky exchange.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil rights litigation.