Monday, March 8, 2010

Big & Bright Apricot Bars . . . .

If you love apricots, and I mean really love apricots, you will probably like this recipe. In this case, though, we're talking about dried apricots. So, are you crazy about dried apricots? I'll give you a moment to think about it . . .

Yes? Well, okay then. Feel free to proceed.

Coming to us from Marcy Goldman's 2007 book, A Passion for Baking, these bars are stuffed full of dried apricots that have been simmered with sugar and citrus juices, and then pureed. The fruit is spread over a layer of partially-baked dough, then another of layer of the same dough--which is first frozen and then shredded with a grater--is sprinkled atop that. Baked until glowing and lightly golden, the whole thing is crowned, once cooled, with a perky dusting of confectioners' sugar. And there you have it--big, bright, apricot bars.

When I made these a couple of days ago, I adhered pretty closely to the original recipe, with one minor substitution. I switched ground almonds for the small portion of optional ground walnuts in the crust dough. If you're going to try these, a couple of caveats: Beware that the dough is really quite soft, so judiciousness is called for when adding in the few tablespoons of heavy cream. Too much cream and you won't be able to work with it well. And, if you're going to try the shredded frozen-dough technique, your dough really has to be frozen. It defrosts quickly, too, so don't cheat with this step or you'll have a sticky mess on your hands.

What were the final thoughts on these apricot bars in my household? My husband was pretty enthusiastic about them, but suggested the filling could be a little "tarter," while I thought they were not bad but felt the filling should be sweeter, so we had no consensus there. (My kids were uninterested, not being big fans of dried fruit, but that was to be expected. At least the younger one was willing to hold one and sniff at it before turning up his nose! Keep in mind, these are not topped with something like the sweet streusel you might find on the top of a coffeecake.)

If I were to make these again I'd like to jazz them up a bit. Maybe add a pinch or two of cinnamon, nutmeg, or some similar spice to the dough, and possibly substitute more ground nuts for some of the flour. I might increase the amount of salt in the crust a tiny bit, too. And, rather than dust the top with confectioners' sugar, which has a tendency to almost disappear after a little while on the bars in terms of both appearance and flavor, I think sprinkling the top generously with cinnamon sugar (perhaps just before it goes in the oven?) might be an intriguing alteration, too. As for the filling, maybe another shot of lemon juice? In any case, I believe this one of those recipes that should be open to your own interpretation.

All in all, though, it's a good basic concept Marcy Goldman's got going on here and one that could be fun to play around with and tweak. She is, in her book, very encouraging of bakers customizing her recipes, within reason at least, so I suspect she'd probably approve of any such creative adjustments. So if you're in the mood, approach this recipe with an open mind, give these a whirl, and let the dried apricot fans have at 'em!

Apricot Bars

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

For the dough:
2 and 1/4 cups All Purpose flour (I used unbleached)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt (I used a heaping 1/4 tsp.)
1/4 cup ground walnuts, optional (I substituted ground almonds)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 Tbsp. vegetable shortening
2 eggs, large
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 to 6 Tbsp. heavy cream (I'd be careful here; don't pour it all in at once or your dough may be way too soft!)
For the apricot filling:3/4 cup orange juice (I used fresh squeezed)
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
4 cups dried apricots (preferably Californian, per Marcy)
1/3 cup granulated sugar

* * *

Confectioners' sugar for dusting on the baked bars

* * *

Make the dough first.
Place the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and nuts (if using) in the bowl of a food processor. Add in the butter and shortening, and pulse to form a mealy mixture.

Add in the eggs, vanilla, and gradually add in the cream to form a soft dough.

Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently to form a firm but soft dough. (Note from Jane: My dough was very, very soft, so I needed to use a more heavily floured work surface, otherwise it would have been quite unworkable. Next time, I'll be more conservative when adding in the cream!)

Divide the dough equally into two pieces and wrap them separately in plastic. Refrigerate one half of the dough for one hour, and put the other half in the freezer.

Make the apricot filling.
Place all of the filling ingredients in a medium-sized saucepan and simmer over low heat, tossing the fruit to moisten and soften it, for about 8 to 12 minutes.

Let it cool for about 15 minutes and then puree it in the food processor. Chill the puree.

Assemble the bars.

Preheat your oven to 350. Liberally coat with baking spray, or line completely with parchment paper, one 11" x 7" pan, or one 9" x 9" pan. Place the pan on a cookie sheet that has also been lined with parchment. (Note from Jane: Marcy Goldman recommends doing this with many baked goods; it may sound like a bit much, but it really works and helps prevent overbrowned bottoms!)
Pat out the refrigerated half of the dough into the bottom of your pan, as evenly as you can.

Bake this for 10 to 12 minutes, then let it cool well.

Over this cooled and half-baked dough, smoothly spread out all of the apricot puree. It will be a pretty thick layer.

Using a box grater, coarsely shred the frozen half of the dough directly onto the layer of apricot puree, taking care to evenly cover the entire surface. (Note from Jane: You may want to shred one smaller chunk of this frozen dough at a time, so as to keep from inadvertently defrosting part of the whole chunk while you're holding it. You can also shred it all onto a plate first, if you prefer, and then sprinkle it onto the apricot layer.)

Place the pan on the parchment-covered baking sheet, and bake for 22 to 25 minutes, until the top crust is lightly golden brown. Cool completely in the pan, on a rack, then dust the bars with confectioners' sugar. If you've used parchment in the pan, use the overlapping paper to lift the bars out in one solid piece, then slice that while it's still on the paper.

Recipe full disclosure! The recipe in Marcy Goldman's book, A Passion for Baking (2007, Oxmoor House), from which this one is adapted, is called "Bookstore Cafe Apricot Squares," and it appears on pages 164 and 165.

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