Kitchen Adventures: The Great Bar Bake-Off

A few weeks ago, after I was all settled from the move, I got to host my first super-important grandma, who I adore, and my godparents and parents, who aren't too bad either! I couldn't wait to show off my polished little apartment to them. My grandma had never seen one of my apartments before, which is probably a good thing considering the first one was kind of a dump and the second one was a den of premarital iniquity. This one though, in true Goldielocksian fashion, was just right, and so they planned for a Sunday afternoon of snacks and plenty of red wine. 

At this point in the story, it's important to note two critical details: first, everyone in my family loves to eat. Second, resultingly, everyone in my family has developed phenomenal cooking and hosting skills. As such, it was naturally imperative that I live up to the high standards the generations before me have set, right? 

Everyone decided on something to contribute. My grandma picked up four different kinds of gourmet cheese and crackers. My parents made antipasto skewers. My godmother made these amazing little sliders. And I got assigned dessert. 

Like any good Minnesota girl, my first thought upon hearing the phrases "dessert," "snacks," and "entertaining" was to resort to bars. They're such a Minnesota-ey thing, bars. And they're so easy! Well, hypothetically, anyway. Being a classic overly ambitious overachiever, I decided to make not one, but two varieties, to celebrate the pumpkin and apple flavors of fall. To do so, I turned to my excessive amount of fall Pinterest recipes, and came up with a few contenders. 

I settled pretty quickly on these Salted Caramel Apple Pie Bars for my apple flavor, but what to do for pumpkin that would be different and unique? I looked at these Pumpkin Cream Cheese bars, but decided to go with Pumpkin Toffee Blondies instead. Who doesn't love a good blondie? I was all for it. 

Then my parents and I went to see "Gone Girl" on the Saturday night before the party, and I had to race through the store in ten minutes flat before they closed. I grabbed chocolate-covered toffee instead of plain toffee, and threw in pumpkin spice chips and butterscotch chips, figuring it'd just work, damnit. And then I went home and started baking the blondies at 10:30 at night. An hour and a half later, they were a total lost cause. I don't know if my oven was too cool or if I screwed something up, but these blondies looked terrible--the outsides were high and charred, the inside was low and still in dough form, and the flavor was just I mean, how do you make pumpkin blondies without any pumpkin? NO THANKS. There's not even a photo because they were so heinously unfortunate. They don't deserve a photo. 

Bar 1 of 3: Down for the count. I scraped those suckers straight into the trash and didn't even lick the batter spoon. Gross. 

 Image c/o  Taste of Home .

Image c/o Taste of Home.

So I reverted to my planned pumpkin cream cheese bars, which entailed a 7am trip to the local Lunds to get chopped pecans, allspice, coriander, and, yes, pumpkin. Here began my adventure with streusel: see, you're supposed to make streusel with sugar and oats and nuts and cold cubed butter, right? And mix it til it's "rough and crumby." So I tried mixing it, and it formed like...a dough. Fortunately, the same ingredients also formed the crust of these guys, SO I mashed the "fail" into the pan and just tried again on the streusel. It wasn't particularly streusel-y, but it worked. And the bars came out, eventually, totally fine. The coriander added an interesting flavor, the streusel topping was streusel-ish, and the pumpkin-cream cheese base was inoffensive and yummy. 

Bar 2 of 3: Not going to win me the Pillsbury Bake-off anytime soon, but I'll take a moderate success over a demented blondie fail. 

But ahhh, the Salted Caramel Apple Pie Bars. Be still, my beating heart. For starters, I discovered the magic trick that is lining your baking pan with tinfoil for minimal cleanup and maximal non-stick. It will change your life--Lord knows it changed mine. These bars have a ridiculously decadent, rich English shortbread crust, which happened to be a breeze to make. While the crust baked, I peeled two apples, tossed them with some spices, and made streusel...MUCH more successfully this time...and then threw it all together for the easiest, most delicious bars ever. And then right before slicing them, I drizzled them all with some semi-homemade salted caramel (Thanks, T. Marzetti!...I did salt it myself...), and bam. Win. 

Bar 3 of 3: I will be trotting these out at every appropriate gathering imaginable, ever, because they are delectable and un-screw-uppable. I've already made them twice more...but the second and third time, I totally actually made salted caramel from scratch, using this recipe. It was SO GOOD. I ate several spoonfuls with no shame, and if you ask me, it totally elevated the bars past even their normal foodgasmic amazingness. Bonus points if you heat them up for 15 seconds...they are truly transcendent. 

 Image c/o  Parent Pretty .

Image c/o Parent Pretty.

A few weeks after my bar adventure and just in time for Halloween, I also made my secret weapon: Melt-in-Your-Mouth Pumpkin Cookies by Parent Pretty. Kaitlin and I made these for the first time last September when I visited her in Baltimore, and I got totally addicted...they truly are autumnal edible crack.  I've made them a couple times since with similar success. This time, though, I topped them with Brown Butter Pumpkin Spice Frosting. And it was ridiculous.

See, what I neglected to pay attention to was the yield of both the frosting and the cookies. So I doubled both, thinking that since I had several different Halloween/fall gatherings in the next several days, it made total sense to double the batch. Yeah. Don't double the batch. The batch makes 60-80 cookies. The frosting yields nearly two pounds of frosting. I ended up with ten dozen cookies, and while they're melt-in-your-mouth delicious, they're also flab-on-your-ass fattening, with TEN sticks of butter between the frosting and the cookies. Um, so thanks to the numerous friends who took pity on me and ate six. I love you, even though your newly-clogged arteries don't. 

And there you have it! My apartment's oven was christened, in epic fashion, with fall bars and cookies. Here's to Pinterest, pumpkin spice, and apple pie!