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Mexican-Style Chocolate-Pecan Bars

A celebration calls for chocolate. And graduating from culinary school—no matter how much fun you had there—calls for celebration. Thus my recent graduation from George Brown College Chef School necessitated the making of a chocolate dessert.

Melting chocolate

In particular, this chocolate dessert.

Glorious caramel

The choosing of it was quite casual. My mother had asked me to pick out a magazine for her to bring to an appointment, to insure that she would have something good to read while waiting for her turn. From my slew of food magazines, I selected The Best of Fine Cooking: Chocolate, because I consider it possibly the most beautiful magazine issue that I have ever received. When my mother returned, she showed me the recipe she had bookmarked: Mexican-Style Pecan-Chocolate Squares. “All right, we’ll make them!” And the recipe was penciled into the graduation celebration date.

A cause for celebration

However, when it came time to prepare them, I received a shock. The sum of chocolate in the recipe amounted to a paltry two ounces, spread thinly between the brown sugar-cinnamon shortbread base and the caramel-pecan topping. This, it seemed to me, was a cheap evasion of the chocolate factor.

Twice as nice

So I chopped another two ounces, and mixed it into the shortbread base before pressing it into the pan. For if two ounces is better than one, four is most definitely better than two.

Patting the crust in the pan

Spreading the melted chocolate

Other than that, I had no complaints about the recipe. It is a significantly improved take on the enduringly popular turtle bar, with the spice of cinnamon and the dark notes of bittersweet chocolate enlivening the sweet, rich duo of shortbread and caramel. A caramel, I may mention in passing, that possesses the perfect texture for a bar cookie: silky and supple, but not tacky, chewy or, worse yet, brittle.

Let the bars cool

Please do not wait until you have the excuse of a graduation to make these. If you serve them, nicely cut, in a bowl alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the resulting deliciousness is reason enough for celebration on its own.

Mmm . . . caramel

Mexican-Style Chocolate-Pecan Squares

Minimally adapted from The Best of Fine Cooking: Chocolate

Ingredients:

For the shortbread:
2 cups (9 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup packed brown sugar*
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ cup (6 oz.) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
 
For the filling:
½ cup (4 oz.) unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar*
⅓ cup honey
2 tablespoons heavy (35%) cream
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups (10 oz.) pecans, coarsely chopped
 
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

*Note on Brown Sugar

The recipe called for light brown sugar in the shortbread, dark brown in the caramel. I never keep two kinds of brown sugar on hand, as I find that organic light brown sugar has enough complexity to stand in for dark variety as well. Wholesome Sweeteners® is an especially flavorful brand.

Technique:

  1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Line a 7”-x-11” baking pan with a sheet of parchment paper, leaving a one-inch overhang on the long sides. (The recipe originally called for a 9-inch-square pan, but I don’t have one, so I used a 7”-x-11” pan. The baking times were a few minutes longer than those specified in the recipe, so if you are using a 9-inch square pan, just check a few minutes earlier than the times I have included below.)You can grease the bottom of the pan to help keep the parchment in place.
  3. Combine the flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon for the shortbread crust in a large mixing bowl. Use your hands to cut in the cubed butter until the mixture resembles moist sand and is beginning to clump together. Alternately, you can blend the butter into the flour mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, processing for approximately 3 minutes on low speed.
  4. Stir the finely chopped chocolate into the shortbread mixture and spread it evenly in the prepared pan. Use your fingers to flatten and press the crust out in the pan.
  5. Bake the crust until firm and faintly golden, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and place pan on a wire rack. Sprinkle the second measure of chopped chocolate uniformly across the surface of the crust. Set aside. The heat from the crust will melt the chocolate while you start the caramel filling.
  6. In a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter for the filling over medium-high heat. Add the brown sugar, honey, cream, and salt. Bring up to a simmer and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.
  7. While the caramel simmers, use a small offset spatula to spread the melted chocolate out over the crust.
  8. Once the caramel has simmered for one minute, stir in the pecans. Pour the filling over the chocolate-covered crust, using a clean spatula to spread it out to the corners of the pan.
  9. Return the bars to the oven and bake for 20 to 22 minutes, or until the caramel is bubbling. The edges will start bubbling much sooner than the middle, but you want some bubbling action in the center of the bars as well before you remove them from the oven.
  10. Transfer the baked bars to a wire rack and allow them to cool completely in the pan.
  11. To serve, use a thin-bladed knife to loosen the bars from the short ends of the pan, then grasp the overhang of parchment on the long sides and lift the bars from the pan. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into rectangles (or triangles or squares) with a sturdy knife.
  12. Store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 5 days. (They actually taste best the second day—if you can wait that long).

Yield: One 7”-x-11” pan

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