Malted Peanut Butter Crunch Blondies

Let's get down to it, friends. What are your Cookie Tin Contenders this year? Are you sticking to the classics? Going on on a limb with all new recipes? A little mix of both? For me, it's about the third category, excitedly baking up those treats that make their appearance just once per year, and adding a few new selections for sport (read: satisfy rabid Pregnant Lady Cravings).

The other night I had my last scheduled book event for the year at the fabulous Omnivore Books here in San Francisco, and got to talking to a friend and fellow blogger about an old recipe from this site's archives that she'd riffed on in the most delightful way (tahini was involved--genius!). Fast forward to 10 a.m. the next morning, and clearly, something baked and peanut buttery was in order (it doesn't take much suggestion to get me set on an idea, food-related or otherwise, in my delicate condition).

But I wanted more than just a great peanut butter cookie with a sweet little crosshatch on top. I wanted something more like a blondie, with heft and nubbiness, texture and chew, hints of brown sugar and caramel and a solid hit of salt. These days, I also want to stop retaining water at levels that might alarm the Coast Guard, a full night's sleep free of leg cramps and acid reflux, comfortable pants that can go from bed to street to couch and back to bed again, and the power to control time. So I figured the least I could do for myself was develop the peanut butter blondie of my dreams, and hopefully give you a great Cookie Tin Contender in the process.

What you get here is all of those aforementioned flavor and texture qualities, with an added bonus: this recipe is ripe for the riffing. Don't have candied butter crunch peanuts? Add whatever nuts you love; throw in chocolate chips, candy bits, sprinkles, a drizzle of something on top. The point is that the base of this blondie is so glorious, it makes a great catchall to whatever jingles your bells. But I have to say that this recipe as-is is pretty spectacular--the ultimate sweet-and-salty, totally craveworthy bar cookie that stays moist for days (it only gets better with time after baking!) and is most excellent for shipping, if you're the type to ship cookies (and if you are, can you please get in touch with me?).

Malted Peanut Butter Crunch Blondies Makes 16-25 bars, depending on size

I really can't say enough about malted milk powder--it adds the most fabulous texture and flavor to baked goods of all sorts. Here, it gives these bars their chew and caramelly background note. Look for plain malted milk powder near the tea and coffee in your supermarket, or sometimes near the ice cream toppings, under the brand names Carnation and Horlicks.

Proper baking time is the key getting just the right texture here--just a couple minutes too many makes all the difference between something moist and chewy, and something kinda hard and not so awesome. If in doubt, underbaking them ever-so-slightly is the answer.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour 1/4 cup plain malted milk powder (see note) 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature 3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (I like Skippy for baking) 1 large egg 1 cup butter crunch or toffee-covered peanuts, coarsely chopped, divided

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F. Spray an 8x8-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and line it with an 8-inch wide strip of foil or parchment paper. Lightly spray the lining, too.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, malted milk powder, baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat together the butter, brown sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg and beat 1 minute more. Add the peanut butter and beat until smooth. Reduce the mixer speed to low and stir in the dry ingredients until the batter is smooth. Stir in two-thirds of the chopped peanuts. Smooth the batter into the prepared pan (batter will be very thick). Sprinkle on the remaining third of the peanuts.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs, 25-28 minutes--do not overbake. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack before removing the slab of bars and cutting into squares. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

BarsShauna Sever