A late-afternoon moment this weekend found me and my daughters gobbling raspberries and grapes off the bush and vine, respectively, like bears laying it in for the long winter sleep. For many reasons, certainly including the golden September light, it was heavenly.
Faced with a perfect grape, or berry, or peach, or moment, sweetness is enough.
Another moment this weekend found me wanting to make an apple crumb bar. This can happen to a pie-averse person in New England in the fall, even in a year (like this one) that is pretty light on apples. In this case, sweetness didn't seem like it would, in fact, be enough. The idea of an apple bar lightly seasoned with (snore) cinnamon made me feel tired. I found I was thinking of a spicy apple bar, and let me tell you, my thoughts did not run to nutmeg.
A little toodle around the Interwebs reminded me of another thing that's very hot and now, which is caramel, especially with salt in it. I generally hide under the couch when the Hot and the Now are out and about, but I do like caramel. My grandmother used to send little kits with sheets of caramel and wooden sticks to make caramel apples. I am pretty sure we just ate the caramel sheets neat.
A number of bars trotted across the screen with caramel sauce in them. But they all said, 'oh, how nice, an apple bar, sleep well,' to me. I wanted something with a little more presence. I know every other thing that doesn't have bacon (so hot! so now!) in it all of a sudden has chiles (very hot, very now), but trendiness aside, I really do like a little heat with the sweet.
A plan began to take shape.
Having gone on record that caramel sauce is a snap to make, I stand by this assertion. I also stand by the assertion that I had 10 caramels from Trader Joe's left over from assembling some party bags, and thanks to that I could move from plan to action like a sprinter. By all means make your own caramels. Homemade caramels are excellent for your self-esteem. But you don't have to make them, for this. I won't tell anyone.
There's some nutritional merit to these bars, though I don't think that will register for most of the people you feed them to. I used white whole wheat flour, but I bet you could use regular and still not be found out. You could replace some of the whole wheat flour with almond meal, if you wanted to enhance the healthy aspect of things, or even add some nuts to the filling if that appeals.
base & topping
1.5 cups whole wheat flour
1/3 c sugar
1/4 c flax meal
1/2 t baking powder
pinch of salt
pinch of cinnamon
1 stick of butter (half a cup, or 8T), cold
1 egg, beaten
1 t red pepper flakes
2 t finely grated fresh ginger
1 large apple, peeled, cored and chopped in about 3/4" dice
10 caramels, chopped up
A fat pinch of coarse, flaky salt
Heat the oven to 375. Lightly butter an 8x8 baking pan.
Combine the dry ingredients and cut the butter into them until you have a coarse, mealy texture. Pour in most of the beaten egg and toss everything together; you are aiming for a crumbly dough that will come together when you squeeze it. Add more egg if you need it, and even a splash of water. But keep it crumbly, overall.
Pat 2/3 of this mixture pretty firmly into your prepared dish, and set it aside. Reserve the remaining crumbly bits separately.
Toss the apple chunks with the sugar, ginger, chiles and cornstarch. Now toss in the caramels and the salt, and then spread this out on the waiting crust. Crumble the reserved dough on top of this, and bake for about 35 minutes, until the crust is golden and firm. You can spoon it out while it is hot, but for cutting purposes, best to cool completely before slicing.