Sour Cream Brownies & Caramel Crumb Bars {ModBak}

Today, we bring you a Modern Baker Challenge two-fer. One thing that I love about baking cookies, brownies, and bars is that it’s almost as easy to make two recipes as it is to just make one. In fact, growing up I don’t ever recall my Mom making just one type of cookie when she baked. And she still makes them in multiples to this day, as evidenced by the fact that she often shows up here with bags of Snickerdoodles, chocolate chips, and peanut butter cookies.

So it was not at all unusual for me to decide to bake Sour Cream Brownies and Caramel Crumb Bars from the Cookies, Bars & Biscotti section of The Modern Baker on the same day. In fact, I’ve baked a number of the cookie recipes in this section this way, even though I’ve blogged them separately. But there was just something about the way these two looked on a plate together that made me decide they wanted to be in the same post.

I started with the Sour Cream Brownies. Like the Cocoa Nib Brownies, these babies are loaded with bittersweet chocolate. Nick Malgieri says that the inclusion of the sour cream cuts back the sweetness just a bit and keeps the brownies moist, and I’d have to agree. These brownies are very rich, but not cloying; and they are moist and fudgy, even after a day or so in the fridge.

If you’ve ever struggled with melting chocolate over a pan of simmering water while holding a bowl and trying not burn your fingers, or attempted to melt it in the microwave without burning it, you’ll appreciate Nick’s technique for melting the chocolate in this recipe. I melted the 6 ounces of butter called for in the recipe in a saucepan and let it bubble for a few seconds. Then I removed the pan from the heat, dropped in the chocolate chunks, and shook the pan to submerge the chocolate in the hot butter. By the time I had mixed the brown sugar, eggs, sour cream, salt, and vanilla in the mixer, the chocolate was melted and ready to be whisked into the butter.

I stirred the chocolate mixture, and then the flour and walnuts, into the mixing bowl with a rubber spatula — another trick I learned from Nick. Overmixing the batter results in tough brownies and fallen cookies, so he recommends mixing in the last few ingredients, including the flour, by hand.

I spread the batter in the pan, smoothed the top, and sprinkled it with a few more walnuts.

I baked the brownies at 350°F for 30 minutes, and not a second more. They still looked very moist in the center, but that’s exactly how the recipe said they should look.

I set the brownies aside to cool. Cutting them would have to wait a day, as Nick also recommends refrigerating brownies overnight. This makes moist brownies like these easier to cut and intensifies the chocolate flavor.

While the brownies were baking, I mixed up the Caramel Crumb Bars. These bars are Nick’s favorite cookie, and I can see why. They consist of three layers — a buttery dough, caramel filling, and crumb topping. And yet they are surprisingly easy to make.

I began by mixing the dough in the mixer. It was made of butter, sugar, salt, vanilla extract, and flour, all mixed together to a soft, silky texture reminiscent of Scottish shortbread dough. I pressed 3/4 of the dough into the pan for the bottom crust. I put the pan in the refrigerator to chill and added a bit more flour to the remaining dough to make the crumb topping.

The next step was to make the caramel. Despite my previous issues with making caramel for semolina cake and pineapple tatin, I have since had better success with caramel, so I felt pretty good about making the filling for these bars. Besides, this caramel started with sweetened, condensed milk and light corn syrup, so I was halfway home before I ever began.

I put the milk and corn syrup into a pan with butter and dark brown sugar. I brought it to a low boil, then let it simmer for about 10 minutes, until the caramel was thick and had taken on just a little bit of color. I set the caramel aside to cool for a few minutes before assembling the bars.

I spread the caramel over the chilled dough, then sprinkled the crumbs on top.

By this time the brownies were finished baking, so I put the caramel bars into the oven, which was still set at 350°F. I baked the bars for 30 minutes, until the filling was a deep, caramel color and the topping had baked through.

I cooled the bars in the pan for about 20 minutes, then cut them. Because of the thick, gooey caramel, these bars are easier to cut when still slightly warm. And although the recipe says to cool them to room temperature before serving, I can attest that they are delicious when they are still a bit warm.

I can easily see why the caramel crumb bars are Nick’s favorites. The sweet, creamy caramel filling is out of this world, and it pairs nicely with the soft, buttery, slightly chewy crust. And of course, crumb topping goes well with almost any sweet. These are definitely on the repeat list. In fact, just writing this post has me thinking about making them to take to work tomorrow.

The brownies came out of the fridge moist and chewy. They were rich, dense, and oh-so-chocolatey. And of course, walnuts are a classic addition to brownies and gave these a nice crunch.

Having made a number of Nick’s brownie recipes, I am convinced that using real chocolate, rather than cocoa or chocolate chips, is the way to go for rich, moist brownies. The only thing I’m not sure of is whether I liked these brownies or the cocoa nibs ones better. I’ll probably have to make both of them together so I can do a side-by-side comparison. In the interest of baking science, of course.

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Chocolate Nut Dough {ModBak}

The last of the dough recipes in the Sweet Tarts & Pies section of The Modern Baker is only used in one recipe in the section — chocolate caramel pecan tartlets — although Nick Malgieri notes in the recipe that it would be good with any tart featuring chocolate. After my successes with sweet tart dough, nut tart dough, and press-in cookie dough, I knew this one would be great, too.

This recipe is similar to the nut tart dough, and even though it was my first time making it, I felt like I had done it before. I began by pulsing sugar and almonds in the food processor until the nuts were powdery.

Then I added flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt, and pulsed to mix. Next, I put in cold butter that I had cut into small pieces, and pulsed the mixture until the butter was finely mixed in. Finally, the recipe called for an egg, egg yolk, and water. After adding the liquid ingredients, I mixed the dough until it came together in a ball.

I was making a half recipe and had to improvise on the liquids a bit (have you ever tried to mix in half an egg or half an egg yolk?) I used a whole egg, no yolk, and a very small amount of water. Nonetheless, my dough seemed a bit wet after it was mixed up. I thought about adding more flour, but decided just to chill it well and use plenty of flour when I rolled it out.

The dough firmed up nicely in the fridge, and with generous dusting, rolled out well, too. I was using the dough for tartlets, so I cut the rolled dough with a round scalloped cutter and pressed the circles into a mini muffin pan.

I chilled the dough in the pan for a few hours and baked it at 350°F for about 12 minutes. Despite having pricked the dough with a fork prior to baking, it rose up in the pan as it baked. I pressed the center of each tart down with a small ladle as soon as they came out of the oven, which worked well to get the tartlets in shape for filling.

The dough tasted great, almost like a chocolate cookie. As for the tartlets, well, you’ll just have to wait for my next post to see how they came out.

Nut Tart Dough {ModBak}

The Sweet Tarts & Pies section of The Modern Baker includes three dough recipes: sweet tart dough, chocolate nut dough, and press-in cookie dough. This recipe is a variation of the sweet tart dough, and even though it’s not an official Modern Baker Challenge recipe, I found it interesting enough to merit its own post.

This dough calls for the same ingredients as the sweet tart dough — flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, butter, eggs, and water — with the addition of 1/2 cup of chopped nuts. Since I was making this dough for the chocolate orange hazelnut tart, I naturally used hazelnuts in the crust.

I began by mixing sugar and chopped hazelnuts in the food processor, then adding the rest of the dry ingredients.

I blended in the butter, then added an egg, egg yolk, and water and pulsed until the dough held together in a ball.

I preshaped the dough into disks, then wrapped and refrigerated the dough for a few hours before rolling it out and pressing it into tart pans.

This dough makes a really delicious crust. It wasn’t quite as flaky as the regular sweet tart dough, but it was still rich, buttery, and had additional flavor from the hazelnuts.

I will definitely use this crust the next time I make the chocolate orange hazelnut tart. And I might even try it for some of the other tarts in this section.

Parisian Fruit Tarts {ModBak}

This is the first tart recipe in the Sweet Tarts & Pies section of The Modern Baker, and although I generally bake the Challenge recipes roughly in order, this was actually the 11th recipe I made from this section. We started baking from this section at the beginning of April, and I wanted to wait until the fruit at the grocery was a bit nicer looking before I made this tart.

This tart has three components — crust, pastry cream, and fruit filling. Each one is fairly easy to put together. The recipe calls for press-in cookie dough for the crusts, so that’s what I used. Based on my previous experience with this crust recipe, I refrigerated the dough before pressing it into 4 1/2-inch tart pans. The chilled dough is much easier to work with, and chilling some of the dough while working with the rest keeps it firm enough to handle. I baked the crusts for about 15 minutes at 350°F until the crusts were nicely browned and baked through.

The tart recipe includes a recipe for pastry cream, but I decided to take a shortcut and use King Arthur Flour pastry cream filling mix, which makes a rich, delicious pastry cream with no cooking or fuss.

The fruit was also very easy to prepare. I made an apricot glaze by boiling strained apricot preserves and water, then reducing it by about one-third. While the glaze was cooling, I washed, peeled, and sliced the fruit — kiwi, mango, blueberries, and blackberries. I had wanted to use fresh pineapple and strawberries, too, but I bought them too early and they weren’t in the best shape by the time I made the tarts.

After layering the fruit in a bowl, I poured in the glaze, then mixed it all gently with a rubber spatula. To assemble the tarts, I spread a layer of pastry cream in the shells, then piled on the fruit.

We absolutely loved these tarts. The crunchy cookie dough, creamy filling, and sweet-tart fruit all worked perfectly together. I will definitely be making these again and again for my family and friends. And since you can use any mixture of fruit you want, the possibilities are endless.

If you grew up eating “fruit pizza” made with canned sugar cookie dough and cream cheese filling, you owe it to yourself to try the real thing. You’ll be amazed at how easy these stunning and delicious tarts are to prepare. You could also make this as a single large tart, like my friend Abby did, to take to a party or carry-in dinner.

Either way, I guarantee it will make more of an impression than fruit pizza.

Mango & Rice Tart (Pudding) {ModBak}

I’ve been involved with the Modern Baker Challenge for a little over a year now. Some recipes have been bigger hits with my family than others, and I enjoyed the process of baking some of them more than others. But each of the nearly 70 recipes I’ve made so far has come out as expected.

Until now.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have had my first Modern Baker FAIL. Let me say right up front, though, that it was my fault, not that of the recipe. I know exactly what I did wrong, and I’m sure that if I tried baking this recipe again, I could achieve the intended results.

This is actually a rather simple recipe. You cook some rice, make a simple syrup, mix them together with coconut cream, then let the whole thing sit until the rice soaks up all the liquid. This mixture is then scraped into a prebaked cookie tart shell and topped with sliced mangoes.

So, how did I mess this up? On the very first step. I was doing five other things while cooking the rice, and let it scorch a bit. It didn’t burn exactly, but enough of it stuck to the bottom of the pan that there wasn’t sufficient rice to soak up all the liquid. Looking at the filling, I knew there was no way this would hold up as a tart. Picture a fruit pie that doesn’t set up, and you’ll have an idea of what I was facing.

Never one to let a little thing like failure get in my way, I realized the filling was about the texture of Kheer (Indian rice pudding), so I decided to serve it in custard dishes with sliced mangoes on top. My family didn’t know it was supposed to be a tart, and they loved it. And it really did taste like Kheer — sweet, creamy, and oh so coconutty. The mangoes gave the pudding an additional depth of texture and flavor and will be a regular part of my rice pudding and Kheer from now on.

I thought about remaking this recipe, but I feel like I got the true flavors in the pudding. And heaven knows I’ve eaten enough tarts in the past few months.

Bittersweet Chocolate Tart {ModBak}

This is the second tart recipe in the Sweet Tarts & Pies section of The Modern Baker. Having made the press-in cookie dough, I decided to make this tart to fill it.

Although the ingredients list is very short — heavy whipping cream, light corn syrup, bittersweet chocolate, and unsalted butter — I found the instructions a bit fussy. First, the whipping cream and corn syrup are heated, then cooled. That mixture is then whisked into the chocolate, which has also been heated, then cooled. Then the whole thing is allowed to cool before whisking in the butter a bit at a time.

None of these instructions is overly complicated. What bothered me about it was all the waiting time. Heat. Cool. Heat. Cool. Mix. Cool. It just seemed kind of unnecessary. But of course, I followed the recipe, as it was my first time making it. The next time I prepare this filling, I’ll heat the whipping cream and corn syrup, pour the hot mixture over chopped bittersweet chocolate, and whisk it until the chocolate has melted. Then I’ll cool it — once — and stir in the butter.

Once the whole thing was mixed, I scraped it into the shell and refrigerated it for an hour or so. The recipe said to bring it back to room temperature, but tell me, could you resist this?

It was delicious right from the fridge. In fact, I think I liked it slightly chilled more than at room temperature, although I wouldn’t turn it down either way. Nick wasn’t exaggerating when he said this tart needs no adornment. It was so good — sweet, a little tart, richer than a sugar daddy, and perfect with the cookie dough crust.

This is definitely one that will make frequent appearances around here.