I'm in a couple of different writing groups right now. One I coordinate for a bunch of people who won a fancy-pants dissertation completion scholarship at my university, which has become part of my job with our Faculty of Graduate Studies. The other part of my job I describe as helping the faculty set up the Office of Helping PhDs Figure Out What to Do When They're Done. Lots of us have no idea what we want to do, so it's pretty nice to feel like I'm helping out my comrades in a really useful way. The other writing group is a bunch of fellow PhDs from my program, all of us in the dissertation writing stage. We hang out, workshop our chapters, and eat. It's a Friday afternoon ritual that I relish. And I relish, just as much, my Friday morning's making of the things we eat. I, too, want to make the world a better place with cookies. To help people work harder and longer because they're not working hungry. I love Maggie Gyllenhaal's character in Stranger Than Fiction, probably because she reminds me of me. And because she makes me hungry for apricot ricotta croissants.
Baking can be a tricky thing for me, at least baking the sweet stuff. I have about thismuch self-control when it comes to baked deliciousness. What was going to be lunch suddenly becomes two brownies and a salad. Most of the time, I'm happy to go along with the mantra of "everything in moderation, including moderation," but I also relish a healthy sense of balance. Baking for the people in my writing groups largely solves my problem, because it gives me a captive audience to feed--and a whole slew of taste-testers. I can make whatever my little heart desires, because between my writing buddies and Alexis, there is a perfectly moderate amount of baked goodness left over for me. (Having more people to feed is also the only reason I ever occasionally desire an office job. Otherwise, I'm perfectly contented with the fabulous tag team of Melissa & Moose at home alone. We do great things, he and I, and we also have some pretty scintillating conversations. He's currently trying to wrap his head around what a sardine is. It's adorable. As is he.)
This week's creation is a perfect example of the things I'm not allowed to bake when there's no one else to eat them, because they're just too good. They start with a crisp and buttery shortbread base, which is disproportionately easy compared to how lovely it tastes: just butter, flour, and sugar, rubbed together between the pads of your fingers until crumbly and then pressed into a square cake tin. Have you ever had an old-fashioned German chocolate cake--American style, from the South, the kind with the gooey pecan-coconut filling that doubles as frosting? Yeah, that's the golden layer in the middle. Crunchy pecans and chewy coconut swathed in brown sugar and vanilla-scented caramel. And if that wasn't good enough--because we could stop there, and leave these as an ever-so-delicious riff on butter-tart bars--the whole thing is topped off with a thick layer of white chocolate-cream cheese frosting, brightened with a hint of lemon. It's the frosting that makes these really, absolutely insane, that made at least a couple of people I fed them to moan with pleasure after a bite. I did a fair bit of moaning myself, starting with the moment I gave myself permission to lick the frosting bowl. These babies are voluptuous and positively sexy, especially for a square, which is the baked-good equivalent of a pocket protector. I know that white chocolate is one of those polarizing things, like cilantro, or olives, or the great vodka-gin martini debate. Forget about what you think you think about white chocolate. Here, it just disappears into the slight tang of fluffy cream cheese and richness of butter; it gives the topping the firmness and sturdiness that it needs, but you don't taste it. I promise. You just taste the best cream cheese frosting you've ever had.
Oh, and did I mention that they're terribly easy? Go forth and feed your friends. You'll be famous in no time.
PECAN-COCONUT BARS WITH WHITE CHOCOLATE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
I made these this time around in an 8x8-inch cake pan, but I'm going to hunt down a 9-inch one for next time--I think these would be even better if all the layers were a little thinner.
Adapted from Laura Calder's Dinner Chez Moi
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons lightly-packed brown suga
1/2 cup salted butter, softened
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
1 cup lightly-packed brown sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt
4oz (half a package) cream cheese (regular or light), softened
1/2 cup salted butter, at room temperature
6 ounces white chocolate, melted until completely smooth
1/4 cup icing sugar
Juice of half a lemon
Heat the oven to 325F. Line an 8- or 9-inch square cake pan with a piece of foil large enough to overhang the sides and be used as handles later. In a medium bowl, rub the butter into the sugar and flour to make fine crumbs about the size of rolled oats. Press evenly into the cake pan--make sure you get right into the corners--and bake until lightly golden and the centre no longer looks soft, 15-18 minutes.
Meanwhile, add the filling ingredients together in the order listed, so that the eggs are on top. Puncture the yolks with your spatula, then stir together the filling ingredients until everything is evenly amalgamated. When the base comes out of the oven, spread the filling over the top--again, get it right into the corners; I use a little offset spatula for this and the frosting--return to the oven, and bake until set, about 25 minutes.
Cool in the pan for five minutes, then use the foil to remove the whole thing to a rack. Allow to cool completely on the rack before peeling off the foil.
For the icing, beat the cream cheese and butter--I used my electric hand mixer, but you can totally do it by hand, or in the Kitchen Aid--until smooth and fluffy. Then beat in the melted chocolate until smooth. Gradually beat in the icing sugar, and lastly the lemon juice. Spread the icing over the cooled filling, and chill the whole pan of squares. With a hot, dry knife, cut into 16 or 25 squares. I think they taste best cold, but they're good at room temperature too.