The sweet treat that is in the shape of a bar is omnipresent, omnificent and omnicompetent for a bunch of reasons.
It’s a one-pan operation, easy to make, straightforward and involves minimal prep time. And unlike cookies, they don’t need to be portioned, scooped out onto a pan and then baked in batches. “Everything goes into the oven at once, and you are done,” says food blogger (“The Next Door Baker”) and cookbook author (“Real Sweet”) Shauna Server.
It is easy to pack and don’t require special or expensive containers. They also travel well.
“It requires no fussing when it comes to serving because the topping is thick and won’t drip, and it is easily sliceable,” says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor of the PBS show “America’s Test Kitchen.” A bar can be handheld, and so does not require a fork or spoon. Nor does it require a plate — a single napkin will suffice — and they can be eaten on the run.
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It can be sliced larger or smaller to accommodate any crowd size, Davison says, and they would be acceptable.
But although the dessert bar has simplicity written all over it, things get long-winded when it comes to a definition.
The obvious classic shape is what defines a bar for Jennifer McHenry, author of “Quick-Shop-&-Prep 5 Ingredient Baking” (Page Street Publishing Co.; $19.99). Besides that, “a bar needs to have a soft texture, even if there’s a bit of crunch on the top,” says McHenry, who also writes the blog “Bake or Break.”
Davison says she would define bars by their rectangular shape, and that they are baked in rectangle or square pans. But she then adds that they could be cut in the shape of squares or diamonds, and don’t necessarily have to be baked.
The definition is straightforward for mystery novelist Diane Mott Davidson, who recently came out with a cookbook — “Goldy’s Kitchen.” “Bars are simply cookies made in baking pan,” she says.
In cookbooks and food blogs, bars often share the chapter with brownies, which are considered the ultimate bar. But since brownies often overshadow other bars, we have left them for another conversation at another time.
Dessert bars could be chewy, fruity, nutty or chocolate-y, and come in lots of varieties — cookie dough bars; blondies, aka white brownies, which are thick and iconic with their crusty edges and chewy insides; cheesecake bars; fruit bars such as Apple Crumb Bars or Cranberry Pear Bars; fudge bars such as Oatmeal Fudge Bars or Toffee Bars; layered bars such as Chocolate-Coconut Bars or a Three Layer Raspberry Bars; and no-bake bars such as Peanut Butter Pretzel Bars or variations of Rice Krispies Treats.
The combinations are endless. Marry a crunchy sugar cookie with raisins and dried cherries, apricots and dates to get a fruit bar, or pair semi-sweet chocolate batter with a pecan and brown sugar topping for Chocolate Pecan Praline Bars.
And the creations seemingly have no boundaries. McHenry says she has eaten a bar made with a rosemary shortbread crust and apricot filling, flavored with honey and brandy. The final touch was a nutty crumb topping.
Transform a linzer cookie into a linzer bar by spreading raspberry or blackberry preserves over the dough, and by placing lattice strips as the final layer. Upgrade blondies with a dusting of cinnamon or clove powder for a spiced version, or spike them with some rum for a boozy flavor.
Layered bars can handle all sorts of mix-ins from caramel nuggets to peanut butter-filled pretzels to crunchy toffee bits. They also are the platform for some heavenly combinations such as raspberry and chocolate in Davidson’s Bleak House Bars, which is built with chocolate chips, condensed milk, raspberry jam and cream cheese on a pecan shortbread crust. For a winning layered bar photo-op, she recommends pairing a dark-colored bar with powdered sugar or cheesecake frosting, and a light-colored one with chocolate frosting.
Then there’s the crust, which is typically made with a shortbread dough or with crushed cookies. Oats and eggs are sometimes added, but most recipes almost always have plenty of butter.
Sally Swift, co-creator and managing producer of the public radio food show, “The Splendid Table,” says “the malleable and forgiving crust make bars an entry-level baking project.”
So even though the desserts might have a rookie quality to them, they reflect our skilled, creative baking sensibilities without losing their friendly and comforting appeal. They have indeed set a high bar.
DO’S AND DON’TS WHEN BAKING BARS
From Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor of “America’s Test Kitchen”:
DO use a pan with straight corners rather than curved ones as the bars will come out more even looking.
DO make sure the foil fling extends over the edges of the pan before you pat down the crust. It will help to easily remove the baked bars and place them on a cutting board without damaging the pan.
DO pack the crust tightly in the pan with a measuring cup or glass bottom; then it won’t crumble when it’s lifted out. A sturdy crust will also support the topping well.
DO par bake the crust before layering it with curd, jam or fudge. This way the crust will bake through and maintain its texture and crispiness.
DO keep an eye on how much filling you add. If it looks like it’s too much, it is. The crust will not be able to support too much filling.
DO rotate the pan halfway through when baking as oven temperatures vary between the center and back by about 50 degrees. The back of the oven is hotter than the front.
DON’T overbake. The cooking time carries over as the bars cool in the baking pan, and so pull them out when they are slightly under-done.
DON’T cut the bars when they are warm. They have to cool completely or they will crumble, especially with fruit bars.
From Jennifer McHenry, author and blogger:
DO measure the ingredients accurately for the best results.
DO spread the batter or dough evenly. An offset spatula is a great tool to make this process quick and easy.
DO use a thin, sharp knife to cut the bars. Slice with a smooth motion for clean edges. If necessary, wipe the knife off with a damp cloth, or rinse under warm water between cuts.
DO store the bars properly. Nonperishable bars such as pecan blondies need to be stored in an airtight container at room temperature. Perishable bars such as cheesecake bars should be kept refrigerated.
DON’T rush the cooling time.
DON’T change the pan size specified in the recipe. Changing the size will alter the thickness and consistency, which will affect how the bars bake.
From Shauna Server, author and blogger:
DO line the pan with parchment paper or aluminium foil as you won’t attack the pan when cutting the bars.
DO make sure to use cold butter when making a shortbread crust.
DO place the pan in the freezer for about 10 minutes before cutting the bars for a clean and professional look. But make sure to serve them at room temperature.
DON’T use a dark-colored metal pan, or glass pan because they tend to absorb more heat. Use a lighter colored-metal pan to make bars with a chewy crust that are tender all way around.
Makes 16 blondies. These are filled with pucker power from the lemon and lime juices and zests. The texture of the bars is slightly crumbly, and is better a day after they are baked.
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Zest of 1 medium lime
Zest of 1 medium lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
Juice of 1 medium lime
Juice of 1 medium lemon
1/2 cup almonds, sliced
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-by-8-inch baking pan.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, lime zest, lemon zest and salt. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well. Mix in the lime juice and lemon juice.
Reduce the mixer speed to low, gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until combined.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle almonds over the top of the batter.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a pick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, before cutting into bars.