Pumpkin Bars

I recently acquired a few cans of pumpkin (by which I mean I convinced my flat-mate to go back to the store with me to get an extra dozen. It was a difficult task), and so we have been having pumpkin "doughnuts" every other day. A little while before that, there were pumpkin bars, so let's start with those. Why? Because I wanted to make some. Or eat them. Or maybe both.
Supposedly, graham cracker crusts are easy. Crush graham crackers, mix in a little sugar, some melted butter, flatten the crumbly mess into a pan, and bake a little to set it. My results, however, vary between burnt, chewy-caramelized, and rock-hard - sometimes all in one attempt. Never that delightful, slightly crumbly yet sticking together magic that they are supposed to be. Edible? Yes. Pleasant? When you catch yourself scraping the cheesecake off the crust... I'm sticking to crustless cheesecakes for a while.
For at least one memorable key lime pie (lime pie, really, no key limes were hurt in this process - and memorable only for the amount of crackers and their crumbs I produced), I gave up and got a premade crust. After three failed attempts and with a deadline coming up, you need to know when to say we will figure out that piecrust thing some other day. (I actually didn't, I was ready to go for round four when it was gently pointed out to me that I didn't really have the time left to do so...). Maybe next time, instead of graham crackers, I will use oatcakes, skip the sugar entirely, halve the butter, and sacrifice an onion to the kitchen gods (or the mouse that may have taken up residence in our kitchen - maybe it has a good idea!). Or I'll just use a shortbread crust and call it a day.
Shortbread crusts are not nearly as fussy. Or if they are, they differently fussy. The fun comes in when you need to press it into the pan, but overall I've had fewer disasters with them. Of course I also have not tried pressing them up the side of a pie pan either, so maybe I should try that before I make a final judgement.
Pumpkin bars also have a slightly different crust to filling ratio than pumpkin pie does, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, if you're not a fan of pie at all, maybe skip straight to the pumpkin ice cream? (Or custard. But while you are at it, if you can, a nice run through a frozen churn...makes everything better? We can talk about that some other day. Since I foolishly just signed myself up to post every day this month, it might actually happen!)
So. Pumpkin bars. Found at Joyofbaking.com, which is always a fun place to browse when you are in the mood for anything sweet. Or a terrible place. Really depends on your mood, and the state of your kitchen.
Always a good idea?
The recipe is pretty delightful as it is, but as I've been meaning to try out coconut milk as a cream substitute, I used this as an excuse to see what happens. For the most part, as it's a decently strong flavor, the coconut comes through to some degree, I was just curious to see how much and what it did to the final flavor. As it turns out, you can't really taste the difference at all.

So: Put out a stick of butter, you will need it at room temperature later, so you might as well take that out of the fridge first.
Then: Toast some nuts. Or, if you are me, have toasted some nuts two weeks ago when you last made pumpkin bars and realized it takes just as much effort to toast 1/2 cup of nuts (50g) as it does to toast a pound, and so toss the whole bag in the pan. Opened, of course, One really should not throw plastic bags in the pan. Don't do that. Cut open the bag, measure out however many nuts you want to toast, or pour them all in the pan (they taste nice toasted and apparently keep better, so if you are going to be using toasted nuts a lot, you might as well.), and then put the pan in the oven at 350°F until the nuts start to smell nice (also known as "until fragrant") - it usually takes 8-10 minutes. Give them a stir partway through, and don't leave them in until they are dark brown, the nuts will continue cooking for a little bit after leaving the oven, so you don't want to pull them out right before they burn, because they might just do so before they cool enough to stop roasting.  If you are toasting hazelnuts, pour them into a towel and rub them a little, it will help get the papery skins off. If you're using almonds, it doesn't really matter. I haven't tried walnuts or pecans, but I imagine they would also taste nice as a shortbread, so, use whatever nuts you like and have handy.

Once the nuts have cooled, pour 1/2 cup (or 50g) in the food processor with 1 cup (130g) all-purpose flour and 1/4 tsp coarse kosher salt, and grind until the nuts are nicely ground. I don't always take that too far, a few little nut bits add texture, so process til they look good to you. Or, if you don't have a food processor, chop  the nuts fairly finely, then mix with the flour and salt.
Nuts flour and salt.

Now, take that stick of butter and 1/2 cup light brown sugar, and cream them, with a mixer or a fork, whichever you have handy. Keep going until you reach "light and fluffy", or you get bored mushing butter and sugar together, ("Light" actually seems to mean there will be a color change, so that's one way to check if you are getting anywhere.) Then add 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract, and keep mixing until that is nicely incorporated. Now, add your flour mixture and keep mixing until it sticks together as a soft dough. If at this point you have changed your mind about the pumpkin thing, this would probably make a nice topping for an apple crumble too! Mine never quite decided to stick, I was impatient and decided it was good enough, so I dumped it in a greased tart pan and pushed it around until the entire bottom was covered. (If the dough prefers sticking to your hands, try wetting your hands, sometimes that helps. Not dripping, damp will do.)The original recipe suggests lining a 9x13 inch pan with greased aluminum foil, so you can do that too. It does make getting the bars out at the end easier. I just thought it looked prettier this way, and it comes out well enough at the end, but cleanup is certainly easier when you use the foil - put the pan back in its cupboard, done. Also, if you are using a pan with a removable bottom, you might want to put a sheet pan underneath. Butter has a way of leaking, and sheet pans are easier to clean than ovens.

 Not quite light and fluffy.
Much better.
 Tart pan.
Tart pan, greased.

 In with the crumbly bits!
All flattened out.
Bake the crust (yup, just made the crust!) at 350°F for 15 minutes, or until the edges just start to brown. Then take out the pan and let it cool.
 Lightly browned, on a sheet pan, because I don't particularly enjoy oven-cleaning.

In the time the crust cools, whisk two eggs and add the pumpkin, sugar spices, salt and vanilla to them, and whisk til they are combined. 
 Eggs, whisked.
Pumpkin and spice and sugar.

Then stir in (but try not to whisk vigorously) your cream or coconut milk. If you whisk too enthusiastically here you'll get lots of fun little air bubbles in your pumpkin layer - so if you like those, feel free. If not, use a spatula or a spoon.
 The coconut milk was lumpy.
Looks a little better?

Back to scary. That orange does not look good under the kitchen lights.

Now pour the pumpkin layer onto the crust, and put the whole thing back in the oven at 350 for 30-35 minutes, or until the middle is set. I don't know if this is how you are supposed to check, but I just shake the pan gently and see if the middle still wiggles. If it does, it's not done yet. If it  doesn't, take the pan out and let the whole thing cool on a rack.

If you used the foil method, run a knife around the edges of the foil and gently lift the whole thing out of the pan. If, like me, you insisted on making life difficult, gently try to detach any custard that is stuck to the edges of the pan, and then remove the whole thing from the pan. If you didn't use the foil, you might need to gently wedge a flat spatula between the pan edge and the bars and run that around the edge to get it to move. Or you could have been clever and put a sheet of parchment paper underneath, but it's ok. I didn't think of that til just now either.
Because it's prettier this way. Except for the bar I stabbed by mistake.
Don't mind the fluffy one, he has no intentions on that tart...none whatsoever.

If possible, refrigerate overnight (this works best when you make them after everyone else has gone to bed), then cut into squares. If you'd like, put some whipped cream on top. Or just enjoy with tea. Or tea and cream, that works too. They are pretty nice warm, too, so if you don't want to wait or made a mess removing them from your overly fussy tart pan, feel free to dig in with a spoon right away, or bring them back to room temperature later before serving them to other human beings. That is what is recommended anyway. None of us are that patient. They taste good cold, too. So. Enjoy warm, cold, somewhere in between, or go for a new variant and freeze them first if you'd like. They'll probably still taste nice.

Here is the short version, or just go check it out at Joyofbaking.com

Pumpkin bars:

Shortbread crust:
1/2 cup (50g) nuts
1 cup (130g) flour
1/4 tsp coarse kosher salt (or a pinch of table salt)
1/2 cup (113g) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (110g) light brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Grease a 9x13 inch pan or line one with aluminum foil or parchment paper, then grease the foil.
Preheat oven to 350°F, spread the nuts on a tray and toast them for 8-10 minutes. (If you are starting with already toasted nuts, skip this step).
Once lightly browned and fragrant, remove the nuts from the oven and pour onto a clean kitchen towel to cool. If using hazelnuts, let them cool slightly, then gently rub them using the towel to remove the papery skins.
When properly cooled, put the nuts, the flour and the salt in the food processor and process until the nuts are fairly finely ground.
In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the vanilla, beating until combined.
Add the flour mixture to the butter and mix until it forms a soft dough, press this into the prepared pan and bake for 15 minutes, until the edges start to brown.
Cool on a rack.

Pumpkin filling:

2 large eggs
2 cups (425g/15 oz/1can) pumpkin puree (or butternut squash, or sweet potato)
3/4 cup (165g) light brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp coarse kosher salt
1 1/2 cups (360 ml) heavy cream or coconut milk

In a medium sized mixing bowl, whisk together the two eggs, then add the pumpkin, sugar, vanilla, spices and salt, mixing together until thoroughly combined. Stir in the cream or coconut milk, and pour onto the shortbread crust. Bake until the middle of the bars is set, about 30-35 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack. Once cool, remove from pan,  and refrigerate overnight. Cut into bars, enjoy with tea.


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