This recipe was born out of both boredom and creativity on a cold, late spring Saturday a few weeks ago. I am almost ashamed to say just how many test batches of these bars we have eaten over the last few weeks. All in service to my blog followers, of course.
As I wrote in my post on homemade almond paste, I have been playing around with almond paste and ways to use it for the last few years. That particular Saturday I was also thinking about the frangipane muffins that we like to get at Pint Size Bakery. When I first wrote about them, a reader and friend from King Arthur Flour’s baking forum generously shared her bakery formula for frangipane in the comments. Thank you, Laura!
Frangipane is a mixture of almond paste, butter, sugar, flour and eggs. I wondered if we could make some adjustments and use it as a filling for some sort of cookie bar. I did a quick internet search and came up with The Avid Baker’s frangipane cookie squares – almond bars with a marble cookie crust. I decided to make my own version, with hers as inspiration. The filling would be Laura’s bakery frangipane formula, with an extra egg, a boost of extracts and a little amaretto. The crust would be my own chocolate shortbread.
They worked beautifully, and were almost as good as I expected. My chocolate shortbread crust wasn’t exactly what I wanted – too darkly chocolate, too cookie-like. I decided after eating them that the filling’s texture called for a more cake-like base. But the filling was to die for, to be cliché. It was gooey, rich (with a stick of butter, it should be), velvety and strongly almond flavored without being assertive, with a crackly top. Reminiscent of gooey butter cake filling, if you are from St. Louis, or otherwise familiar with the dessert.
I tried again a couple of weeks later, using a chocolate variation of my gooey butter cake crust as the base, and leaving the filling as I did it the first time. Much better. The crust was softer, with only a hint of crunch on the edges, and I managed to get enough chocolate flavor, without crossing the line into bitter. But I still wanted to do more testing before I declared the recipe complete.
I had been using almond paste to make the filling, but I wondered what would happen if I started with whole almonds and ground them with some powdered sugar before combining them with the rest of the filling. I figured I could combine the recipe for the bars with the recipe for almond paste and eliminate a few steps. After trying that, we decided we liked that version better. And it meant we didn’t have to have almond paste on hand, or make it, to enjoy the bars. The filling contains both powdered sugar and granulated sugar, which makes it pretty sweet, but the texture is fabulous and the bars are meant to be enjoyed in small amounts. It might work with all granulated sugar, but frankly, I am tired of eating the test batches.
I had also been baking the bars in an 8-inch square pan, but they were very tall and looked out of proportion. And it was hard to get the middle cooked without overbaking the edges. I decided to try them in a slightly larger pan and see what happened. The area of an 8-inch square pan is 64 square inches. The area of a 7 by 11 inch pan is 77 square inches. The extra thirteen square inches made a big difference. The bars were a more manageable height and they baked more evenly.
When Rich’s parents were visiting us last weekend we decided to make the bars so they could try them. They like almond desserts as much, if not more, than we do. Between the five of us we ate them all in a couple of sittings. I made another batch the next day, trying yet another variation. I’ll be posting that variation on Friday, so stay tuned.
The pictures show two different batches of the bars. The ones with two layers each of crust and filling were the first batch I made when Rich’s parents were here. I’m not sure why the crust rose up through the filling, leaving only a thin layer on the bottom. I certainly made one layer of crust and one of filling when I was assembling them. I was talking to Rich’s mom while I mixed them up, so it is possible I got too much butter, or too much baking powder while I was distracted. They were pretty, and cool, but I will probably not be able to replicate them again. Whatever I did, it didn’t affect the taste any, though the filling wasn’t as gooey as it should have been. It certainly didn’t keep us from eating them way too fast.
Gooey Almond Chocolate Bars
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 16-20 bars
If you have some on hand, you can substitute 7-8 ounces of almond paste for the almonds and powdered sugar in the filling. Just cream it with the butter until smooth and then proceed with the recipe. Grinding the almonds fresh makes the filling slightly creamier, with a stronger almond flavor.
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup granulated sugar
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, melted
¾ cup whole almonds (blanched or natural, I used blanched)
¾ cup powdered sugar
½ cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon amaretto liqueur, optional
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch square pan or 7 by 11-inch pan and set aside.
Make the crust first. Mix together flour, cocoa, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl or the bowl of your mixer. Add butter and egg and mix until smooth. Press or spread into prepared pan. Set aside. Set bowl aside for mixing the filling.
Grind almonds and powdered sugar in a food processor or blender until finely ground. Transfer to the bowl you used to mix the crust. Add butter and mix until combined and smooth. Add sugar, extracts and amaretto and beat until well mixed. Add eggs and beat again. Stir in salt and flour and mix gently. Pour on top of crust and spread to edges.
Bake for 25-35 minutes. The 8-inch pan will take longer than the 7 by 11 pan. When bars are done, filling will be golden brown on top and almost set. The center will still jiggle slightly when you shake the pan. If top starts to brown too fast, lay a piece of foil lightly on top of the bars to shield them a bit.
Let cool in pan on a wire rack until room temperature. Cut into 16-20 bars. Bars keep for several days at room temperature. Freeze for longer storage.