Holiday Baking - Cranberry Bars!

Last season I tried a Cranberry Apple Bar recipe.  You can check it out in my article Kamikaze Baking Part Two - Something New.  I did like them, but wasn't totally wow'd, so giving two new recipes a try this year. What to chose as there are literally hundreds of mouth-watering recipes out there?

When selecting a new recipe consider where it fits in. Is it a dessert for one night or part of your holiday baking. If the first, you need to decide what works with the dinner menu. If the latter, then consider what else you have that will be going on the combined plate. Does it add colour, texture or a new flavour.  I like to have at least one offering with fruit and cranberries are definitely holiday and add a great tartness. Lemon bars are another I might look into this year if I have time.

The two below were chosen because they are quite different from each other. The first uses dried cranberries and is the only one I'm making this year with white icing.  I love that they were cut in triangles - something I might adopt with my other bars. The second is a more traditional streusel created with fresh or frozen berries. This appealed to me as it wasn't too gooey - just a nice layer of filling.

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I love when someone takes a commercial recipe and tries to make it a little healthier. Gina Homolka of Skinny Taste was asked if she could please create a lighter version of Starbuck's Cranberry Bliss Bars – a blondie cookie bar with chunks of white chocolate chips and dried cranberries, topped with sweet cream cheese icing, tart dried cranberries and white chocolate drizzle. And she did!! Skinny Cranberry Bliss Bars have a quarter of the fat (5 grams) and less than half the calories (149). Now remember those numbers only apply if you cut them the recommended size and eat just one! HOHOHOHOHO! (I tried them out and not hard at all, but my dried cranberries weren't as bright and colourful. They never do look just like they do in the pics.)

Skinny Cranberry Bliss Bars
Makes 30 bars

2 cups all purpose flour (Gold Metal)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar, unpacked
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter
2 large egg whites
1/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce
2 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup white chocolate chips or chopped white chocolate
1/3 cup dried cranberries, chopped

8 oz 1/3 less fat cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 ounces white baking chocolate, melted*
1/3 cup dried cranberries, chopped
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly spray a 9 x 13 inch non-stick baking pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon and stir to blend. In another bowl, whisk the sugars with the butter, egg whites, applesauce and vanilla until light and fluffy. Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients in two additions until the batter is very well blended. If the batter looks more “crumbly” than smooth, add just a drop of water at a time (ONLY if needed) until it smooths out.

Fold in white chocolate chips and 1/3 cup cranberries. Spread batter onto the baking pan using the
back of a measuring cup to smooth evenly. Bake 10 - 14 minutes, until the edges are light brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Don't over-bake or your bars will be dry. Let it cool completely on wire rack.

Meanwhile, prepare the frosting; in a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the cream cheese, powdered sugar and vanilla until well-blended. Frost bars and sprinkle with remaining cranberries. Drizzle with the melted white chocolate. When the chocolate sets, cut into 15 large squares (5 cuts by 3 cuts with the knife). Then cut each square in half diagonally to create triangles. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

*To melt the chocolate, place in a microwave safe cup and heat 15 seconds; stir. Another 15 seconds; stir until the chocolate is melted. (I usually melt chocolate in bowl set onto a pan of simmering water. With the variation in microwave power, be careful if you use this method).

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The second, from a website called Fine Cooking, is credited to Nicole Rees. In looking down the list of reviews - always a good idea - the biggest suggestion was to reduce the sugar to 3/4 cup in both the streusel and the filling. I prefer things not overly sweet so embraced those changes.  Other recommendations I took to heart were just a little orange rind in the filling and even a little orange liqueur or orange juice - so I went with those suggestions as well. (Note - I always worry about fussy recipes. I have a kitchen scale, but not one that is that accurate.  Fortunately I stumbled along missing a few steps and adjusting to my style as I went and they still came out fine. When substituting ingredients - weighing is the only way to go.  For a regular recipe, slight variations are how you make it your own. So don't be intimidated.)

Cranberry Streusel Shortbread Bars Recipe
Image by Scott Phillips
Cranberry Streusel Shortbread Bars
Makes 35 bars

TIP:For the best results, measure your flour by weight instead of volume. (1 cup of all-purpose flour equals 4-1/2 oz.) If you don’t have a scale, be sure to use the proper technique when filling your measuring cups.
Position a rack near the center of the oven and another near the top. Heat the oven to 325°F.

For the crust and streusel:
10-1/2 oz. (1 cup plus 5 Tbs.) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to just warm
3/4 cup granulated sugar (original recipe was 1 cup)
3/4 tsp. table salt
2 large egg yolks
14-1/4 oz. (3 cups plus 3 Tbs.) unbleached all-purpose flour

For the cranberry topping:
12-oz. bag fresh or frozen cranberries, picked over, rinsed, and drained
3/4 cup granulated sugar (original recipe was 1 cup)
Suggestions to add - 1-2 T of orange cognac/liqueur or orange juice and a small amount of very fine orange rind. I mixed these in after removing the topping from the stove to cool.

Make the crust:

Line a straight-sided 13x9-inch metal baking pan with foil, letting the ends create an overhanging edge for easy removal. In a medium bowl, stir together the butter, 9 T sugar (just over 1/2 cup - original recipe 3/4 cup), and the salt. Whisk in the egg yolks. Stir in the flour to make a stiff dough. Transfer about 2 cups of the dough to the prepared pan (remember we pulled out a 1/4 cup of sugar), and press the mixture evenly into the bottom. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate the pan for 30 minutes (or freeze for 5 to 7 minutes), until the dough is firm.

Bake the dough until the crust begins to set but does not brown at all on the edges (the center will not be firm yet), about 20 minutes. While the crust bakes, prepare the streusel and the topping.

Make the streusel:

With your fingers, combine the remaining 3 Tablespoons granulated sugar (original recipe 1/4 cup) with the reserved dough until crumbly. The mixture should hold together when pressed, but readily break into smaller pieces.

Make the cranberry topping:

In a medium saucepan, bring the cranberries, sugar, and 1/4 cup water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium high and continue to boil until the liquid is reduced to a thick syrup, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool 5 to 10 minutes—the syrup will continue to thicken as the mixture cools.

Spread the cranberry mixture evenly over the hot crust. Scatter the streusel over the cranberries (don’t crumble the streusel too much or the texture will be sandy). Increase the oven temperature to 350°F and bake the bars near the top of the oven until the streusel is golden and set, about 25 minutes. (Baking these bars at the top of the oven helps the streusel brown faster without over browning the crust.)

Place the pan on a metal rack to cool until the crust is completely firm, at least 1 hour. (For faster cooling, put the bars in the fridge once the pan is no longer piping hot, or even outside in winter.) When the bottom of the pan is cool, carefully lift the bars from the pan using the foil sides and transfer them to a cutting board. Separate the foil from the bars by sliding a spatula between them. Cut the bars into 1-3/4-inch squares. The bars will keep at room temperature for one week.