Move over, Girl Scout Cookies– you’ve got competition. During my summer visit to BAKED in Brooklyn, I discovered the glory that is Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars. Among the treasure trove of treats that I brought home was this amazing little gem, an homage to the classic Samoa cookie: a layer of gooey, coconut-laced caramel crowning a buttery shortbread cookie, topped with toasted coconut, then drizzled with chocolate. It also had a thin layer of chocolate on the bottom, though the bars didn’t look individually dipped; for the life of me I can’t figure out how they achieved that. At any rate, it’s one of the best things I’ve had in my entire life, and I was beyond thrilled that the recipe was included in Baked Elements!
This was my bar from BAKED for comparison. (I like a little more chocolate on mine!)
I was so excited to try these at home– it was the very first recipe I tried from the new book when it was published in September. I noticed that the book version was slightly different, most notably with the bottom chocolate layer. (The home version calls for dipping the bars individually in melted chocolate.) No matter, I was determined to produce some exquisite bars of my own! These are a two-day project for me, as they involve toasting the shredded coconut, making the shortbread crust, making the caramel, assembling the bars, cutting the bars after they cool, and finally dipping each one in melted chocolate. Make no mistake– they are unquestionably worth the effort! I had two challenges with this recipe: the shortbread and the caramel. TWICE…
As I have discussed in several blog posts before, sugar work has always been a challenge for me. I’m in the process of learning the underlying chemistry that dictates the texture, consistency, color, and flavor of caramel, but it’s a work-in-progress. Many times I feel like I have little or no control over this capricious beast. Unfortunately, this recipe was no exception! However, last week I attended a fabulous candy-making class where I learned a tremendous amount about sugar mixtures, which helped me quite a bit on this third attempt to make Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars.
This recipe uses a candy thermometer, so I tried to stick to the temperature instructions as closely as possible. Unfortunately, this resulted in an overly dark, way-too-chewy caramel on the first two attempts, not nearly reminiscent of the divine texture of the bar I tasted from BAKED. The temperature of 250°F was too high to yield the light color and soft chew of the original. I also found that my shortbread texture was off; the process of making it seemed uneventful enough, though I was concerned that I had over-worked the dough. It looked fine coming out of the oven, so I proceeded with the bar assembly. When I cut them in preparation for dipping after they had cooled, I found that my crust was very dry and crumbly. When I dipped them in melted chocolate, large chunks of shortbread broke off of the bottoms of the bars; eventually my bowl of melted chocolate became muddled with a mess of cookie crumbs. The bars still looked pretty from the top and tasted good, but they were difficult to eat due to the tough, chewy caramel and the cookie which would crumble upon the most careful bite. Not an acceptable version of these magnificent bars!
Attempt #1: Rock-hard caramel + crumbly shortbread = no bueno.
I was broken-hearted and couldn’t bear a third Samoa failure, so I had to put the recipe aside for a while. But now, Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars are this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment… I was both apprehensive and determined, hoping that the third time would be the charm! I once again embarked on a valiant adventure to recreate BAKED’s bars, though I planned a few small, yet significant, deviations from the recipe, based on the results of my first two subpar experiments.
When making the shortbread, I was extra careful in handling the dough while mixing and patting it into the baking pan. The dough is extremely sticky, and I found myself re-flouring my hands several times (though I doubt there was enough extra flour to cause the crust to be dry). My 350°F oven was ready and waiting for duty, so I slipped the pan in and crossed my fingers. The baking time is 25-30 minutes; the previous two times I took my shortbread out after the minimum 25 minutes, so this time I took the pan out after 20 minutes. I was optimistic, as the top of the crust was a pale gold color and had a firm, yet, slightly soft texture.
I then moved on to the dreaded caramel. With this recipe, you must heat the sugar mixture twice: once to melt the sugar and combine the ingredients into a syrup, and again after adding the butter and heavy cream. Both times, the recipe instructs to heat it to the range of 240-250°F. I knew I would not go this high, because that temperature range would result in tough, dental-hazard caramel. I learned in last weekend’s candy class that achieving the right type of sugar mixture is truly an art; pastry chefs often use candy thermometers as a guide, but they have gained an instinctive feel for the color, aroma, and texture of the mix. The thermometer can sometimes lead one astray!
For the first round of heat, I was directed to remove the pan from the burner when it took on a hue of “amber”. This seemed a little ambiguous since there was brown sugar in the mixture and it was amber already, so the thermometer was very useful here. The sugar was bubbling furiously and smelled very sweet– no burning. Meanwhile, there is one more multi-tasking step: you need to gently heat up a mixture of heavy cream and sweetened condensed milk in a separate saucepan, without boiling. I anxiously kept the sugar going until the thermometer read about 237°F (while keeping an eye on the cream), at which point I turned off the heat and added the butter and cream mixture. The heating process took about 8 minutes or so. The bubbling brew didn’t sputter as much as I expected, but I stirred it together anyway and turned the heat back on.
Keeping in mind the color of the caramel in BAKED’s version, I watched the thermometer climb very slowly… Several times I was tempted to stop because the temperature didn’t seem to be moving much, especially in the mid-220°F range. I stirred it slowly on occasion to make sure the temperature was consistent throughout the pan… tick-tock. After about 15 minutes, the sugar finally hit 235°F. It was a gorgeous, golden blonde shade of caramel with a semi-thick consistency at this point. The mixture sputtered and frothed in protest when I added the vanilla extract, but I steeled my nerves and kept stirring it in. Finally, I folded in the toasted coconut, which melted beautifully into submission.
It’s important to work very quickly when adding these last ingredients because the caramel changes rapidly at this stage. I poured the coconut-caramel over the shortbread cookie crust and spread it evenly to the edges with a small offset spatula, then sprinkled the remaining toasted coconut over the top and pressed it in lightly. I examined my baking pan with all my senses: the color looked right; the aroma was heavenly– no trace of burnt caramel; the texture felt as though it would not harden like my first two attempts. (It was silent and I couldn’t taste it yet, so those senses weren’t as helpful.) I walked away feeling very hopeful and possibly with a slight spring in my step.
I checked on The Precious several times as it cooled, and in fact, the caramel seemed to maintain a soft texture– things were looking good! After cooling to room temperature, I was instructed to put the pan in the fridge, but I decided to leave it out on the countertop overnight, lest the caramel harden too much…
The next morning the pan was in the same state in which I had left it, and when I revisited it that evening after work, I was ready to melt the chocolate and cut the bars for dipping. I held my breath; I still didn’t know what tricks the shortbread had in store for me. I remembered that when I tried to cut the first two batches, it felt like I needed a saw. This time, my chef’s knife pierced the caramel’s perfectly soft surface with little resistance, yet it completely held its shape! 🙂
The shortbread… well, it was slightly less dry and crumbly, but still dry and crumbly. *sigh* The buttery flavor was fantastic, but I knew the crust would again fall apart if I tried to dip the bars in chocolate. So I had to adapt my chocolate method a bit– I was determined to make these work!
I flipped the bars over carefully so that the bottoms faced up. Instead of dipping the bars into the bowl, I was going to pour the chocolate over them, them flip them back over– a little backwards, but I was confident that it would work. I poured the melted chocolate into a liquid measuring cup and poured a dollop of chocolate onto each square. I then flipped each one over gingerly and placed them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. In placing them chocolate-side-down, the chocolate then spread out to cover the bottom of each square.
The final step was to drizzle chocolate over the tops, which I would normally do with a small pastry bag. Since I was already using a chocolate-covered measuring cup, I poured the remaining chocolate in a thin stream straight from the cup. The pan then went into the fridge to firm up the chocolate for 15 minutes… Et voilà, my bars were done and beautiful! 🙂
Overall, I am pretty stoked about these bars, as caramel has always been tricky for me. I am over the moon about this caramel– it is rich, dreamy, and perfectly chewy (similar to soft candy bar caramel). The temperature modifications were the key to success with this recipe. The shortbread, while delicious, still needs some work. I am considering reducing the oven temperature to 325°F, researching how to modify the ingredients slightly, or I may use a different shortbread recipe altogether next time.
Here are some tips for success with this challenging recipe:
- Take your caramel no higher than 235°F
- Have all your caramel ingredients ready before you start, as you have to work quickly once your sugar is heated
- Melt the chocolate gently over a pot of water on low heat to avoid scorching
- I found that 2 heaping cups of coconut is plenty for the caramel and topping
- Do not refrigerate the bars (except for the 15 minutes needed to set the chocolate)
These bars take some practice, but boy, are they worth the time and effort!! Visit Baked Sunday Mornings for the Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars recipe, and check out the shenanigans of my fellow bakers. Girl Scout cookie fans rejoice! 🙂