Chewy, Chocolaty Pecan Pie Brownie Bars

Now that we've all got our holiday baking pantry essentials assembled (right? RIGHT?), it's go time. I always kind of like to ease into the holiday baking season with what I like to the call The Gateway Cookie. Something simple, easy on ingredients and time, totally craveworthy and guaranteed to blow minds so you get the push you need to crank out the next recipe. It's a life philosophy, friends.

Sometimes I start with Heirloom Sugar Cookies, because they're the quintessential holiday cookie of my youth and get me thinking of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special and Bing Crosby and just give me a general fa-la-la-la-la! sensation. But I'm tired this year, folks. I'm at the point in my pregnancy where I need to make decisions like, do I shave my legs or vacuum the living room? Because seriously, you're not getting me to do both. So this year, The Gateway Cookie needed to be simple, but totally delicious. And it doesn't get much easier than a bar cookie. No scooping, no rotating baking sheets. Also, chewy plus sweet-salty plus chocolate AND pecans? Come at me, bro.

The eyebrow-raising quality of these bars is that they basically turn out to be a marriage of brownies and pecan pie. No, no, you heard me right. Now, to be totally honest, I've never been much of a pecan pie sort of person. Love lemon meringue pie, love apple, have even grown to love pumpkin pie in my rapidly increasing age. And this year, my love of pumpkin pie has grown even more, thanks to a fairly magical recipe that had me making it not once, but twice in the week surrounding Thanksgiving. Before I made the second pie, however, I toyed with the idea of making it a pecan pie due to some odd craving that I'd never before experienced (fault of the fetus?), but instead just made another Dahlia Bakery pumpkin pie at the request of the husband, because really, isn't it so cute when dudes ask for a specific dessert?

So after making the second pumpkin pie, as great as it was, I still had pecan pie on the brain. Or something pecan pie-ish, at least. And it had to have chocolate, because that's just the headspace I was in at the time. (Don't question the pregnant lady.)

When I first started playing with this recipe, I had sort of a fancy-pants notion of how the whole thing would go. I used gingersnaps for the crust, and certainly didn't regret the decision, per se. But! There was definitely some competition going on between the flavors. Who would win? The spark of spice in the crust? The bittersweet chocolate? The nutty pecans shot through with brown sugar caramel? It got kind of stressful. So the second time around, I went for The Sure Thing. I swapped out the gingersnaps for chocolate wafers, because nothing bad can happen if you start with chocolate wafers. That's just a personal feeling of mine.

And with that subtle switch came a seriously craveworthy situation. Once the caramel topping bakes into the chocolate crumb crust, the bottom layer transforms into something wonderful and brownie-like that gets even better the next day. The topping is at once toasty, nutty, caramelly, and chewy, and loaded with chocolate (thanks to the chopping of the chocolate, you've got some chunks in the mix, along with some shards that melt into the caramel--a chocolate tweed situation, if you will). And it really couldn't be easier--no fancy equipment, no mixer required, and if you pop the baked bars in the fridge to cool and set faster, you're dealing with a pretty short start-to-mouth situation. All the makings of a perfect Gateway Cookie.

Chewy, Chocolaty Pecan Pie Brownie Bars Makes 16-25 squares, depending on how you cut them

So as mentioned previously, you can swap out the chocolate wafers for store-bought gingersnaps, or even graham crackers. If you have a hard time finding the plain chocolate wafers, I imagine any other plain chocolate cookie, like animal crackers, would work just as well. I suppose you could really go rogue and used Oreos (dang!), but in that case, you might consider trimming back the sugar and maybe a tablespoon of the butter in the crust.

I really like agave nectar here, but you could use light corn syrup if you've got that on hand--I'd up the amount of light corn syrup to 1/3 cup. I suppose pure maple syrup could also be a good swap, but I'd go with the 1/4 cup measure for that, and know that it would change the flavors here quite a bit.

For the chopped chocolate, I used my beloved Ghiradelli bittersweet chips, which are a little bigger than your typical chip, and when chopped, create all these wonderful little shards in addition to chunks of chocolate, and the shards melt into the caramelly topping, which I think really makes the whole thing. You could use bar chocolate, too. Either way--YUM. These are even better the day after baking and beyond.

For the crust: 8 ounces chocolate wafers (about 40) 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted 2 tablespoons granulated sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt

For the chocolate pecan topping: 6 tablespoons dark brown sugar 1/4 cup light agave nectar 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk 3/4 cup (4 ounces) chopped bittersweet chocolate chips (60 to 70% cacao--see note) 1 cup chopped pecans

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with aluminum foil.

To make the crust, in the bowl of a food processor, grind the chocolate wafers to fine crumbs. Add the melted butter, sugar and salt and process until well-blended and evenly moistened. Turn the crumbs out into the prepared pan and press firmly across the bottom of the pan in an even, compact layer. Bake until firm and fragrant, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and set aside.

To make the topping, in a medium bowl whisk together the brown sugar, agave nectar, vanilla, and salt. Add the egg and egg yolk and whisk to blend well. stir in the chopped chocolate and pecans Scrape the mixture over the crust and smooth evenly.

Bake until the topping is set, 28 to 32 minutes (the topping will puff up for a bit, then deflate, and will firm up soon after--check often after the first 25 minutes or so). Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, about 1 hour, before removing the slab of bars and cutting into squares (speed up the cooling process by popping the pan in the fridge for 30 minutes or so). Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Chocolate, BarsShauna Sever