Caramel Crumb Bars

I have had quite enough of the fresh 'n fruity summer desserts around here. Let's get down to brass tacks, shall we?

Mmm-hmm. Those there are Caramel Crumb Bars, and they have easily moved into a position on the Piece of Cake Top 10 List. Buttery and sweet-salty with a creamy caramel filling, they are the stuff of bar cookie dreams. I will be honest with you--this recipe is not about doing anything in moderation. But if you are feeling particularly ridiculous and want to experience the very best that the pairing of sweet cream butter and pure cane sugar has to offer, then please enthusiastically proceed.

It all starts with a simple, simple shortbread crust--just butter, sugar and flour mixed together and pressed into an even layer in a 9x13-inch pan. And don't even think you can save yourself by halving this recipe--because you'll just end up making the other half the next day. So just go for it. Trust.

Most of the shortbread dough gets pressed into the pan (a sheet of plastic wrap makes quick work of getting the sticky dough to cooperate) and then popped into the fridge to chill, but some of the dough gets reserved and mixed with a little extra flour to make a crumb topping. Again, just use your hands--nature's best baking tools.

Now comes the huminuh, huminuh part of this equation. There is no other way to say this, people, so I will just come out with it. More butter, more sugar, corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk. I told you this recipe was ridiculous. Cook them together quickly so they morph into a smooth, dreamy caramel so beautiful that it will make you forget all about the insane amount of calories in this recipe. Almost.

When the dough has chilled and the caramel has had a chance to cool a bit, take a deep breath and prepare to enter a hypnotic state. Oh, man.

All that's left to do is sprinkle on the crumb topping and bake the bars until they become bubbly and golden on the edges (a see-through glass pan will make it easier to check the bottom of the crust for doneness).

After the baking time is up, hang tight for about 20 more minutes to let things set up a bit, then remove the bars from the pan and cut them while they're still warm--warm and chewy with a buttery, sandy shortbread crust. And although it will be difficult, if you can let them cool completely, the texture and flavor will get even better.

With the exception of Communists, everyone is a sucker for sweet and buttery with a hint of salty. It's the magical mild salty finish that keeps you heading back for another, and another...don't say I didn't warn you in the first place.

Caramel Crumb Bars
Adapted from Nick Malgieri's The Modern Baker

Makes 2 dozen bars

Save the wrappers from the softened butter sticks--it's the perfect amount with which to grease the parchment. Note that the flour measurement calls for it to be spooned into the cup and leveled off--this will give you a different amount of flour in the cup than the dip and sweep method and noticeably effect the texture of the crust.

For the crust:

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour (spooned and leveled)

For the filling:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
Generous 1/8 teaspoon salt

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9x13-inch pan with parchment paper or foil and lightly grease it.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter, sugar and salt together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate. Turn the mixer down to low and gradually mix in 2 1/4 cups of the flour until the dough is smooth, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl as necessary to ensure there are no dry pockets.

Place 1/4 of the dough into a small bowl and set aside. Lightly press the rest of the dough evenly across the bottom of the pan with your palms (a sheet of plastic wrap over the dough will prevent it from sticking to your hands). Chill the pan in the refrigerator while you prepare the topping and filling.

Make the crumb topping by working the remaining 1/4 cup of flour into the reserved dough with your fingertips until large crumbs form. Set aside at room temperature.

To make the filling, place the 4 tablespoons of butter, corn syrup, brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, allowing the mixture to bubble gently for about 10 minutes--it will thicken and darken in color slightly. Scrape the caramel into an aluminum bowl and allow it to cool for about five minutes.

Pour the filling over the chilled dough and spread evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the filling. Bake until the crust browns and the filling darkens in color and bubbles, about 30 minutes. Allow the bars to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before removing the slab from the pan to a cutting board. Cut into 24 bars and cool completely before serving. The bars can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature if serving within a day, and wrapped tightly and frozen for up to two months after that (thaw the bars at room temperature).

BarsShauna Sever