Champagne Wishes, Caramel Dreams: Butterscotch Blondie Bars with Peanut-Pretzel Caramel

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Happy New Year, friends! As 2015 begins, I’m sure many of us are reflecting on the past year and forming hopes and dreams for the upcoming one. I, for one, always strive to grow in my baking and pastry arts each year by trying new things and bettering my old favorites. In reading through some of my early blog posts, I was so happy to see how far I’ve come since I started this little blog in Fall 2012, particularly with regard to my comfort level with layer cakes! They used to strike fear and anxiety into my heart, and now I relish the feel of my spinning cake table as I finish off a smooth crumb coat. It hasn’t all been roses in 2014, however; I’m struggling with basic caramels lately, and while I’d like to blame it on my crappy apartment stovetop, I must entertain the possibility that my technique has become flawed… At any rate, it’s on my mind to improve in 2015. After much consideration, I’d say the following are my Top 5 New Year’s Baking Resolutions:

1. Fix my faulty caramel

2. Continue to try figuring out why I can’t properly dye frosting

3. Continue working on my cake decorating skillz

4. Get down my chocolate tempering technique

5. Start learning laminated pastry

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But before any of this happens, let’s do a little celebrating as the first half of this decade goes into the books! When you’re tired of candy canes, chocolate-peppermint everything, toffee, and red-and-green sprinkles, consider these Butterscotch Blondie Bars with Peanut-Pretzel Caramel. I made them a few years ago, and was immediately enamored by the sweet and salty goodness, crunchy topping, gooey caramel, and buttery crust. There’s a lot of texture going on in there, and I even think they’re pretty to look at! I finally got back to them this year, and they were no less spectacular. The blondie crust is made with brown butter, which is one of my favorite things on earth, and I freaking love pretzels, so I was thrilled to be reacquainted with these delightful little squares. I would even like to have more pretzels than what the recipe calls for, so I’d suggest increasing from 1 ½ to 2 cups. Also, I forgot to crush my pretzels, which would probably help to distribute them better. Finally, I would make them a touch more salty next time by adding a sprinkle of flaky sea salt on top.

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Oh, and all that stuff I said about having problems lately with caramel– I was nervous to make these, even though they’re really quite easy, and fortunately I had no issues. I was thrilled to end the year with a successful batch! 🙂

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Butterscotch Blondie Bars with Peanut-Pretzel Caramel
Adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine
Yields 32-40 bars (depending on your cutting size)

I would suggest bumping up the pretzels to 2 cups (original recipe calls for 1 ½ cups), and/or sprinkling flaky sea salt on top for a little extra salt… if you’re into that sort of delicious thing.

For the blondies:

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

For the caramel:

  • 4 cups roasted unsalted peanuts
  • 2 cups sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup honey
  • ¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups 1 ½”-wide thin twisted pretzels, coarsely crushed
  • Flaky sea salt for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9×13″ baking pan with greased aluminum foil or parchment paper, leaving an overhang so you can easily pull the bars out later. Also line a rimmed baking sheet and set aside.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.

Add the butter to a medium heavy-bottomed skillet and melt over medium heat. Keep cooking the butter until browned bits form on the bottom of the pan, anywhere between 8-15 minutes, stirring often. It will sputter and foam, and eventually the browned milk solids will sink to the bottom. Watch it carefully at this point; I like to let my butter get nice and dark (the nutty aroma is heavenly), but it can burn in an instant. Once browned to your liking, transfer the butter to the bowl of a stand mixer and allow to cool slightly.

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Add the brown sugar and affix the paddle attachment. Beat until well combined for 2-3 minutes; the mixture will look something like wet sand. (You can also do this using an electric hand mixer.)

Add the eggs and vanilla all at once and beat until well mixed, about 2 minutes– you will see it transform from a dark gooey mixture into a fluffier, lighter-colored one. Fold in the flour mixture with a spatula or wooden spoon until smooth; the batter will be very thick. Spread the batter in the prepared pan with an offset spatula– it may be difficult to wrangle into an even layer!

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Bake the blondie crust until the edges are golden brown and start to pull away from the sides of the pan. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out with just a few moist crumbs attached, 20–25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. It may puff up during baking and develop fissures on top, but will settle back down. Let the blondie cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Leave the oven on.

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While that cools, retrieve the rimmed baking sheet and spread the peanuts on it in an even layer. Bake, stirring occasionally, until they are golden brown and fragrant, 7–12 minutes. Set the peanuts aside to cool completely and turn off the oven.

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Finally, you’ll make the caramel. Gently stir the sugar and water in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Brush down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush as needed to keep sugar crystals from forming. When the sugar has dissolved and small bubbles start to form along the pan edges, stop stirring and increase the heat to medium. Boil the sugar, occasionally swirling the pan gently (but not stirring), until the sugar turns a deep amber color, about 12–15 minutes.

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Add the honey and stir to combine. (Make sure to wash the spoon/spatula that you first used to stir the sugar before reintroducing it into the pot at this stage– any sugar crystals on the spoon can ruin the caramel.) Bring it back to a boil, stirring often, 1 more minute or so. Add the butter and stir until blended. Add the cream –your mixture will bubble up– and whisk until smooth.

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Stir in the peanuts and pretzels, and quickly pour the peanut-pretzel caramel over the cooled blondie and spread in an even layer all the way to the edges. Place the pan in the fridge uncovered and chill until cooled, at least 1 hour.

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Lift the blondie out of the pan using the overhanging foil/parchment and run a knife around the edges if needed. (I can usually peel the foil away without too much difficulty.) Using a large sharp knife, cut the blondie into bars of your desired size.

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They are very rich, so I usually cut them no larger than 2″ squares, yielding about 32 bars. Smaller bites work great as well. Make sure to cut these cold, and I also recommend serving them chilled, as the caramel will melt all over the place at room temperature and the blondie will get softer. (Not that they won’t still be delicious– just a lot messier.)

The bars can be chilled for up to 1 week in an airtight container.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2015.

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