This has been the summer of the bar cookie. My kids are all very into helping in the kitchen, so for my sanity I’ve kept our bakes simple. A big lifesaver has been simply pressing cookie dough into the pan vs. individually portioning it out; because do you know how long it takes to get through a recipe with three children all wanting their turn for each step?
For the most part, I don’t mind. But I do have a renewed appreciation for the humble bar cookie. Focusing on tray bakes also reminded me of a few recipes sitting in my “to try” file, most notably carmelitas: a buttery oatmeal and brown sugar bar cookie filled with chewy caramel and chocolate.
Of course I had to put a little bit of a spin on it. First: brown butter! Since we’re melting butter for the crust/topping anyways, just take the extra couple minutes to brown it, thereby adding some delicious nutty complexity to these bars. Maillard reaction FTW!
Second, homemade caramel! Most carmelita recipes call for using either caramel ice cream topping or chewy caramel candies melted down with cream; but I think it’s worth it to make your own salted caramel sauce. You can control the darkness of the caramel (go dark! It helps tame the sweetness of these bars.), plus it only takes a few minutes. Seriously, once you start making your own caramel, it’s hard to accept anything less than homemade.
- Since we’re only making a small amount of salted caramel, I strongly prefer the dry method (i.e. not adding water to the sugar at the beginning) for speed. Your sugar may clump and look a bit questionable, but it’s fine, everything is fine! Stirring is fine! Just turn down the heat if you need to and let any lumps liquefy, then turn the heat back up to get that caramelization going. As always, whenever you’re making caramel, have all your other ingredients measured out and ready to go before you start heating the sugar.
- You can make the salted caramel sauce ahead of time (it lasts for ages in the fridge); just gently reheat to a pourable consistency when you’re ready to assemble the carmelitas.
- Be generous with the salt, both in the caramel and with the garnish on top! These bars need it!
- Cool and chill the carmelitas completely before cutting. I know it’s tempting to dig in ASAP, but if you cut these bars before they’re completely cool you will have a gooey mess on your hands. I like to pop the whole tray in the fridge for an hour or two to make cutting a breeze.
For the salted caramel sauce:
- 160g granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp sea or kosher salt
- 45g unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 100g heavy cream (35%), at room temperature
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
For the base and topping:
- 150g unsalted butter, cubed
- 1/2 tsp espresso powder (optional)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 125g all purpose flour
- 100g light brown sugar
- 90g rolled oats (regular, not quick or jumbo)
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 150g bittersweet chocolate, chopped (or a mix of semisweet and bittersweet)*
- 55g well-toasted nuts, finely chopped**
- Flaky salt, for garnish
- Make the salted caramel sauce: In a medium heavy-bottomed, light-colored saucepan, sprinkle the sugar in an even layer. Place over medium heat. Once the sugar starts to melt around the edges, use a heatproof spatula to drag the melted parts toward the center of the pan. Continue dragging and swirling the pan to make sure the sugar is melting evenly and not scorching. If the mixture gets very lumpy and grainy, don't panic! Turn the heat down and stir until the chunks melt. Once all the sugar has liquified, you can turn the heat back up.
- As soon as the melted sugar turns the color of an old copper penny, remove it from the heat and add the salt and butter, stirring continuously. Be careful, as the mixture will bubble up!
Whisk until the butter has melted and the mixture is smooth and combined.
- Still continuously stirring, add the cream in a slow, steady stream—again, taking caution as the mixture will bubble and rise. Return the pot to medium-low heat for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently, to thicken the sauce slightly.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Transfer to a heat-safe container and let cool while you prepare the rest of the carmelitas.
- Make the base and topping: Preheat the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle. Line an 8x8 pan with foil or two criss-crossed pieces of parchment, leaving 2-3 inches of overhang on at least two of the sides for easy removal. Lightly grease the foil or parchment.
- To brown the butter, place the cubed butter in a small, light-colored saucepan over low-medium heat. Once the butter has melted, turn the heat up to medium-high. Stir frequently with a heatproof spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan as needed. The butter will crackle, foam, turn clear gold, then finally start browning. It’s done when the crackling subsides and you smell toasted nuts. This process takes about 8-10 minutes total, but the butter can go from browned to burnt in a flash—so keep an eye on it.
- Pour the butter and all the toasty bits into a small bowl or glass measuring cup and whisk in the espresso powder (if using) and vanilla. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes (it can be warm, but not piping hot when you add it to the rest of the ingredients).
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, oats, salt, and baking soda. Pour in the brown butter mixture and stir with a fork until all the dry ingredients are evenly moistened.
- Bake the crust: Transfer about 60% of the mixture (~260g) to the prepared pan and use the bottom of a measuring cup or small glass to press it firmly and evenly along the bottom. (Reserve the rest for the topping.) Bake for 10 minutes.
- Finish assembling and baking the bars: Remove the base from the oven and sprinkle the chocolate and nuts over the top. Pour the caramel sauce in an even layer over the chocolate and nuts. Sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture over the top.
- Bake until the topping is lightly browned and the caramel is bubbling on the edges, about 18-20 minutes. Cool at room temperature for an hour, then refrigerate for 1-2 hours until firm.
- Cut into desired sizes and serve lightly chilled or at room temperature. Store leftover bars in an airtight container in the fridge or at room temperature for up to 5 days; freeze for longer storage.
*Chocolate chips are fine; I recommend something in the 55-70% cacao content range. I used a mix of semisweet chocolate chips and Callebaut 70% callets.
**I used almonds, but any nut you like will work here.
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