Can I get an AMEN??
This recipe started off well. Excellently, in fact.
There was chopped chocolate. Always a promising start.
And a tender shortbread crust that came together in under 15 minutes and came out of the oven a golden, puffy brown. Beautiful.
Then I got to the caramel layer. Perhaps I had a bit too much confidence at this point. My only other experience with caramel had been this salted caramel sauce that comes together so quickly, and with so little trouble, I thought all caramel was a breeze. So I dumped the ingredients in the pot and started cooking.
And that’s when things started to go down the drain. Literally. I poured my first batch down the drain.
It was that bad. A truly epic fail. I wish I had taken a picture of it, just so you would believe how incredibly disgusting this caramel was. The texture was gloppy, the color was brown(ish?) and studded with dark crusty burnt pieces. And, to top it all off, the butter had separated somewhere in the process which made the surface look like a giant oil slick. Gross.
And of course, my body didn’t manage to escape the experience unscathed. By the end of the night, I had a cut finger, a burnt hand, and a majorly grumpy attitude. I went to bed that night determined to never attempt the recipe again. Game. Over.
But when I woke up the next morning, things had changed. My finger didn’t hurt, my head wasn’t pounding, and I was filled with the renewed optimism and confidence a good night’s sleep can give you.
So I said, darn you caramel! You will not beat me! (And then the Mr. shook his head and went off to kill some zombies. I think he assumed this was going to be a long adventure).
In to the kitchen I went armed with a brand new (non-stick) pot, a wooden spoon, and my game face. I learned a few valuable lessons from the first go-around and decided some changes were definitely in order. And because I don’t think anyone should have to experience the lumpy mess I dealt with, I’m going to share them all with you!
First, a word of encouragement. I know I started this with a description of how incredibly awful this recipe turned out the first time. But the second time around was much, much easier, and even the failed attempt was totally worth it just to be able to experience this:
You, my friend, are going to conquer caramel the first time around. Because you’re awesome. And also because I’ll be cheering for you through cyber space the whole time. Let’s do this!
First, make the shortbread crust. This is a breeze. I promise it can’t be screwed up. Whip it up and get it out of the way. Woohoo! Confidence booster.
Now, grab a LARGE, NON-STICK pot (the exact opposite of the small, totally sticky pot I used in my first attempt) and place it on the stove. Add the butter, sugar, and corn syrup and turn the burner to medium heat. Let the butter melt, stirring occasionally, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pot, until the mixture boils. Once it boils, continue to cook for 4 minutes, STIRRING CONSTANTLY. Remove from heat and stir in sweetened condensed milk.
Return to burner. Grab a candy thermometer and plop it in your pot. Candy thermometers are NOT SCARY. All they do is tell you exactly when the caramel is done. That way you don’t have to wonder if it’s amber enough or what exactly “until slightly thickened” means. Stir the mixture often until it begins to boil (this will take about 10 minutes).
At this point you want to get nice and comfy because you’ll be spending some quality time by the stove. I chose to use this time to listen to my Michael Bublé radio on Pandora, sing my heart out with some Ella Fitzgerald, and pretend like I can actually dance.
Once the mixture is boiling you need to stir CONSTANTLY until the mixture gets nice and deep golden brown and thick (or until it hits the “soft ball” stage on your thermometer).
Does “stir constantly” mean you can take a 3 second break to “dislike” the song playing on your Pandora radio? Yes.
Does it mean you can stop and do some dishes? No, sir. Learn from my mistakes, friends, learn from my mistakes.
Once you’ve reached the soft ball stage, remove the caramel from heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour it over the shortbread crust.
Proceed to use a knife (or your finger) to scrape off every surface that contains caramel and shove it into your face. Seriously. The pan, the spatula, the spoon you used to stir it, even the candy thermometer. You don’t want to waste a bit of this caramel. This stuff is WONDERFUL. Gooey, warm, sweet, and chewy. The whole process was worth it just for that moment.
From there on out, it’s smooth sailing. Warm up that chopped chocolate double boiler style, pour it on top and prepare to be wowed. These are over the top rich decadent treats. The caramel is definitely the feature of the bars so if you aren’t a huge fan, I would halve the amount of caramel. These are very rich, so cut them small. Think fudge size. A few bites goes a long way.
We stored these in the fridge, but let them sit out for at least a half hour before cutting and serving. We served them at an outdoor party and I found I liked them best after the sun had some time to soften the caramel and melt the chocolate. Whether soft and warm or straight from the fridge these are definitely a crowd pleaser. And, I have to admit, as terrible as those moments of failure may be, it makes the successes that much sweeter. And this, my awesome caramel champions, is a sweet success.
If you’ve got an hour or two of free time waiting for you this weekend, I recommend making these sweet fudge-like caramel bars. It’ll be time well spent.
Chocolate Caramel Shortbread Bars
Yield: About 50 small pieces
Recipe adapted from Annie’s Eats
For the shortbread:
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
For the caramel:
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into small hunks
1 cup sugar
4 Tablespoons light corn syrup
2 (14 oz) cans sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
For the chocolate:
8 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut by the Tablespoonful
1. To make the shortbread, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9 x 13 in pan. In a small bowl combine flour, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until well combined, 1-2 minutes. Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until a cohesive dough begins to form. Transfer dough to the greased pan and use your fingers to press it into the bottom of the pan. Bake for 18-22 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
2. To make the caramel place butter, corn syrup, sugar, condensed milk, and vanilla in a large, non stick pot. Turn the burner to medium heat. Let the butter melt, stirring occasionally, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pot, until the mixture boils. Once it boils, continue to cook for 4 minutes, STIRRING CONSTANTLY. Remove from heat and stir in sweetened condensed milk.
Return to burner. Grab a candy thermometer and plop it in your pot. Stir the mixture often until it begins to boil (this will take about 10 minutes). Once the mixture is boiling you need to stir CONSTANTLY until the mixture gets nice and deep golden brown and slightly thickened (or until it hits the “soft ball” stage on your thermometer). Once you’ve reached the soft ball stage, remove the caramel from heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour it over the shortbread crust. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or overnight before adding chocolate.
3. For the chocolate, place chocolate, butter, and corn syrup in a heat proof bowl situated over a pot of steaming water. Allow to melt, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Pour over caramel mixture. Refrigerate. Before serving or slicing, remove from fridge and allow to warm just slightly. Then slice into small bars and enjoy!