When I received Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours for Christmas in 2007, this recipe was one of the first that jumped out at me. It looked like an ooey, gooey, homemade version of a Snickers bar. And Snickers bars are, well, awesome. The problem? I was suffering through a peanut allergy and, after throwing an internal tantrum, had to turn the page and make a mental note about these bars should the day come that I could eat peanuts again. Why, hello, peanut-allergy-free day! (For details on my nut allergies and how I overcame them – among others – read this post.) I’ve been allergy-free for over a year now, so I am long overdue for making these beauties. How I resisted shortbread crust, dulce de leche, caramelized peanuts and chocolate ganache for so long is beyond me.
Believe it or not, caramelizing the peanuts was my very first time working with homemade caramel in any form. A new kitchen conquest, complete! It was easier and less intimidating than I anticipated. I just followed the directions to a “T” and had no problems whatsoever. The result was a batch of unbelievably addictive caramel peanuts that made me want to go to the ballpark and enjoy a box of Cracker Jacks.
Speaking of addictive, dulce de leche could have its photo in the dictionary next to the word. If you haven’t tried it before, you simply must. It is milk caramel and is made by slowly heating sweetened milk. There are directions on the web for making your own dulce de leche from sweetened condensed milk, but I find it easier to just buy a jar. Some people have found it at their grocery store without a problem (apparently the most common location is in the International – Mexican/Hispanic aisle), but in all of the trips to countless grocery stores I have made, I have never found it at any of them. I buy mine at a small Italian grocery market, which always has it in stock. So long story short, you may have to do some searching for dulce de leche, but it is well worth the trouble!
This recipe is a relatively easy one to put together, even though it includes multiple steps. The peanuts don’t take very long at all to caramelize and once spread out on the pan, they cooled quite quickly. I would estimate an hour or so, start to finish (not including the time in the refrigerator to set the bars). Since the dulce de leche is a little on the soft side, I found that these were the best straight from the freezer (I refrigerated to set, then cut into squares and stored in tupperware in the freezer). Neither the crust nor the filling froze completely, and they were perfectly chilled. The ganache topping did crack when bitten into, but candy bars aren’t made for neatness, now are they?
For the Crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
For the Filling:
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons water
1½ cups salted peanuts
1½ cups dulce de leche
For the Topping:
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
½ stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch square pan and put it on a baking sheet.
2. To make the crust, toss the flour, granulated sugar, confectioners' sugar and salt into a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Toss in the pieces of cold butter and pulse about 12 times, until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Pour the yolk over the ingredients and pulse until the dough forms clumps and curds - stop before the dough comes together in a ball.
3. Turn the dough into the buttered pan and gently press it evenly across the bottom of the pan. Prick the dough all over with a fork and slide the sheet into the oven.
4. Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it takes on just a little color around the edges. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool to room temperature before filling.
5. To make the filling, have a parchment or silicone mat-lined baking sheet ready, as well as a long-handled wooden spoon. Put the granulated sugar and water in a 2-quart saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Keeping the heat fairly high, continue to cook the sugar, without stirring, until it just starts to color. Toss in the peanuts and immediately start stirring. Keep stirring, to coat the peanuts with the sugar. Within a few minutes, they will be covered with sugar and turn white - keep stirring until the sugar turns back into caramel. When the peanuts are coated with a nice deep amber caramel, remove the pan from the heat and turn the nuts out onto the baking sheet, using the wooden spoon to spread them out as best you can. Cool the nuts to room temperature.
6. When they are cool enough to handle, separate the nuts or break them into small pieces. Divide the nuts in half. Keep half of the nuts whole or in large pieces for the filling, and finely chop the other half for the topping.
7. Spread the dulce de leche over the shortbread base, leaving a ½-inch border around the edges. Sprinkle the whole candied peanuts over the dulce de leche.
8. To make the topping, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water or in a microwave, using a low power setting. Remove the chocolate from the heat and gently stir in the butter, stirring until it is fully blended into the chocolate.
9. Pour the chocolate over the dulce de leche, smoothing it with a long metal icing spatula, then sprinkle the finely chopped candied peanuts on top. Place the pan in the refrigerator to set the topping, about 20 minutes; if you'd like to serve the squares cold, keep them refrigerated for at least 3 hours before cutting.
10. Cut into 16 bars. Store covered for 2 days at room temperature, or refrigerate for 5 days.