Sesame Cashew Bars

I’ve wanted to visit Sofra outside of Boston for years, and somehow life + pandemic made it so that I didn’t visit my favorite U.S. city for over six years. In the meantime, I had acquired owner Maura Kilpatrick’s masterpiece of a cookbook, Soframiz, and while I haven’t baked nearly enough from it, the first recipe that I tried was the Sesame Cashew Bars. Without having tasted them at the bakery at that point (their most popular item, according to the recipe intro in the book), I knew I would be instantly obsessed with these. The rich little morsels are chock-full of cashews, honey, and sesame seeds, all piled into a luxurious caramel that you’ll pour over a buttery shortbread crust, and as much as I love chocolate, I don’t miss it one bit when I’m romancing a Sesame Cashew Bar.

And finally, during a relative break in waves of Covid, I was able to get to Boston last November, and come hell or high water, I was determined to get to Sofra! Sometimes as a baker I feel pulled in multiple directions because I have so many influences, both cultural and culinary– American, Israeli, Middle Eastern/Mediterranean, Italian, Irish, French… I’ve always been drawn to recipes that incorporate a little twist on traditional recipes, or a unique spice or flavor. Once in a while, I discover a bakery that speaks to my soul– Sofra is one of those places. The recipes are heavily Middle Eastern-inflected (specifically Turkish), incorporating copious amounts of tahini, phyllo dough, pistachios, saffron, and honey. They also have a to-die-for breakfast sandwich and savory pastries, as well as a whole marketplace wall of spices and seasonings, plus a cookbook shelf. I really could have hung out inside the shop for a good hour reading bottle labels, studying the pastry case at an uncomfortably close distance, and thumbing through recipe pages, but ya know, none of that was a thing during Covid, so I hastily shuffled outside to wait for my brunch order, escaping with *only* a jar of sun-dried tomato powder.

If you have the opportunity to get to Boston (or if you’re already there, lucky you!), you really MUST make the trip to Sofra, which is located a bit out of the way in a suburb called Watertown, in an unassuming strip mall. It defies its low-frill surroundings, though the long line out the door might in fact give away its secret. I couldn’t get an outdoor table or bench or anything– my friend and I snarfed down our heavenly food while sitting on the curb outside. Aside from the outrageously delicious breakfast sandwich, we got a load of pastries– I just couldn’t resist trying as many things as possible since I had finally gotten there. So yeah, I schlepped around a box of pastries with me for the next two days while walking around my beloved college city… and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 🙂

Needless to say, one of my favorite nibbles in said pastry box was the illustrious and deceptively modest Sesame Cashew Bar. Of all the items I had bought, this little square was the one I was most excited for. It is an exceptional concoction of sweet, salty, nutty, buttery, chewy, crunchy, crumbly magic. Dramatic much? Not in the least, you’ll see! Sweet and salty desserts are a taste explosion on the tongue; for me, they hit all the notes that make my senses absolutely sing.

A few recipe notes:

  • The recipe recommends a baking time of 26-28 minutes, and the edges only should be bubbly, not the center; it looks waaaay underdone when you take it out of the oven. The caramel will set up while the bars cool and chill overnight. It’s important not to overbake them, as the caramel will end up too hard to eat. The first time I made them, I got concerned around 17 minutes because they already looked done based on the visual cues described in the recipe. I left them in the oven for another few minutes (20 minutes total), and I was sure I had ruined them because they cooked way too fast, but after refrigerating and thawing, they were absolutely perfect and spectacular. So basically keep a close eye on them after about 15 minutes of baking. (Basically every time I’ve made them I’ve been convinced that I ruined them. Aaaand every single time, they’ve come out magical.)
  • The second time I made them (last December), I forgot to chop the cashews because I was distracted while baking multiple holiday cookie box items at the same time. Naturally I realized this *just* as I was pouring the cashew caramel over the baked crust. ::face palm:: But I’m happy to say that although the top looked a bit different (the caramel seeped a little below the surface of the cashew layer), they were totally great anyway. So if you happen to forget, don’t worry because they’ll still be magnificent. For my third attempt (now), I chopped half of the cashews and left the rest whole, and I must say, this has been my favorite, both visually and texturally– that’s what I’ll do from now on.
  • The crust is very crumbly– it is not a cohesive dough, just a pile of buttery crumbs that barely hold together when you press them into the pan. When baked, it looked different than any other shortbread crust I’ve seen– it looks dry with lots of pock marks (from evaporated butter bits). But it soaks up a lot of the caramel during the second bake, so do not be concerned about this; I think it’s purposeful, as otherwise the crust would be oversaturated.
  • It’s okay if the butter looks a bit separated while whisking the caramel mixture before it starts boiling– it should come together just fine.
  • I enthusiastically recommend sprinkling a little flaky sea salt on top to bump up the sweet and salty contrast even more.
  • The bars are very rich, so I cut these into much smaller morsels than, say, a batch of blondies.

These have been a beautiful addition to my holiday cookie boxes for the past couple of years. Every time I’ve made them, people go bonkers and want the recipe. Your people will too! I also love them for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), as well as in the springtime when honeybees are buzzing; in both cases, the symbolism of honey carries a lot of meaning and I find them to be a uniquely sweet and celebratory treat!

Sesame Cashew Bars

Adapted from Soframiz by Maura Kilpatrick

Yields 36-64 squares

For the shortbread crust:

  • 2 cups plus 1 tablespoon (250g) all-purpose flour
  • 1¾ sticks (7 ounces/14 tablespoons/200g) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ¼” cubes
  • ⅔ cup (140g) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

For the caramel:

  • 3½ cups (395g) salted cashews, coarsely chopped (or combination of chopped and whole – that’s my preference)
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 sticks (8 ounces/16 tablespoons/227g) unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup (50g) granulated sugar
  • 1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons (345g) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • ½ cup (170g) raw honey
  • 5 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat an oven to 350°F and position a rack in the center position. Line a 9″x13″ baking pan with a large sheet of parchment paper, so that it extends over all four sides.

Make the crust:

Place the flour, cold butter cubes, brown sugar, and salt and in the bowl of a food processor fitted with its metal blade. Pulse to blend the ingredients well until the butter pieces are roughly the size of small pebbles, about 20-30 seconds. The mixture will not form a cohesive dough; pour the crust crumbles into the prepared baking pan, spread them out to the edges, and press down to pack them tightly into an even layer. It will look dry, and this is normal. Place the pan in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, or up to overnight (cover with plastic wrap if not using right away).

Bake the crust for about 25 minutes, or until it takes on a light golden brown color. It will still look fairly dry (compared to a normally buttery shortbread, for example) and may have small pockmarks from the bits of melted butter. Set aside to cool and keep the oven on.

Make the filling & bake:

Stir together the cashews, sesame seeds, and salt in a medium mixing bowl.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan with tall sides over medium-low heat. Stir in both granulated and brown sugars and the honey, and cook over medium heat, until the sugar crystals dissolve, whisking constantly. Stop whisking from this point and let the sugar syrup boil undisturbed. The mixture will begin to turn amber, thickening and forming large, slow bubbles. If you prefer to use a candy thermometer rather than eyeballing it, it should reach 240°F at this stage. Remove the pot from the heat and whisk in the heavy cream and vanilla; the caramel may bubble up and sputter. With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, quickly stir in the cashew mixture until well combined.

Pour the cashew caramel over the baked crust in an even layer. Put the pan back in the oven and bake until the edges of the caramel along the sides of the pan are bubbling boisterously; the center should still be liquid, 20-28 minutes (see the note above about baking time– mine was done way before the recommended baking time of 26-28 minutes). The filling will appear unbaked; resist the urge to overbake. The filling will set up as it cools, and if it overbakes, the caramel will be too hard to eat once it cools. 

Set the pan on a wire rack to cool completely, then cover tightly and refrigerate overnight. 

Lift the cashew caramel slab out of the pan using the parchment handles. Using a sharp knife, cut it into small squares, anywhere between 1-2″.

Store the Sesame Cashew Bars in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2022. 

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