Peanut butter & chocolate. It’s a classic combination that folks go nuts over (pardon the pun) but not me. Sure, l love a Reese’s once in a while and a peanut butter/nutella/banana sandwich once a year or so. Oh and those Peanut Butter Twix were pretty good but overall, there are other things out there that I’d push your grandma down for. Yet despite all this, I’ve been toying with the idea of the ultimate peanut butter bar for several weeks now. Go figure.
This new found fascination caught me by surprise and I can trace it back to a peanut butter pie I had recently at a local restaurant. What a clunker. I don’t even know why I ordered it but my friend insisted against my better judgement. It was heavy, dry, dense and completely unappealing. I ditched it after one bite (one bite! argh!), ordered another cocktail and started to think about how to make it better. Rather than a pie, a bar could be very interesting, especially a really good bar. On slow days, I’d think about the possibilities, what the components could be, how it’ll come together. (Yes, my life is in fact that exciting. Feel free to be extremely envious.) For whatever reason, it took me a long time to transition from a loosey goosey concept to something tangible. I just never got around to it. Until now.
In my mind, this ideal bar had three distinct layers – buttery crust, then peanut butter and a chocolate top. Sounds simple right? Shouldn’t be too hard. I started jotting down some notes.
First up, the base component. A buttery bottom crust to add some contrast and hold it all together. Bars that go right to the peanut butter seem incomplete, like they could be so much better if only … something. They need a crust – maybe shortbread, maybe more like a tart or pie dough. I dug through the dusty recipe archives of my mind and remembered a crust I’ve used in the past. It was easy (one bowl & a spoon), buttery and firm yet not crumbly. Alice Medrich never lets me down. This could work.
The peanut layer was next and the most important – they are peanut butter bars after all. I wanted solid peanut-y flavor, creamy but firm. The filling had to skip along that middle line of solid enough to slice cleanly yet light on the palate – no clunkiness. I wanted contrast too, some kind of crunchy salty thing happening No chopped peanuts or chunky peanut butter – nah, too expected. I once folded some feuilletine into a peanuty mixture and loved the texture. Since this is difficult to find outside a professional kitchen and I didn’t want to overcomplicate a simple bar recipe by making my own (I tend to do that), I crushed some cornflakes instead. With a healthy pinch of salt – perfection! I couldn’t stop eating it out of the bowl. On top of the buttery crusty base it went.
The topping was to be chocolate, of course. I mean, what else would I possibly use? I needed a gloss of deep, dark chocolate on these bad boys. Not a traditional ganache though- it gets gets sticky and messy as it warms. I made a very simple chocolate icing – chocolate, butter and a touch of corn syrup – that sets up nice and firm. It’s a pretty standard bakeshop recipe that you’ll see around frequently and there’s a reason for that – it works and it’s tasty.
The result? Fantastic. Buttery, smooth, nutty, creamy, chocolatey – everything I wanted in a peanut butter bar x 10. And they look rather pretty too, which is always a bonus.
The tip of the day? Line the pan with foil otherwise you’ll never get these things out cleanly. Make a simple double sling – lay foil in the pan as neatly as possible one way then criss-cross with another. When the bars are baked and chilled, just lift out the overhang. Easy easy.
For simple cutting, chill the bars until firm, use a sharp knife and wipe the knife between each cut. They’re rich but the good news is they freeze forever. Well, I can’t technically confirm that “forever” part but they do freeze, well wrapped, for a very very long time.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: OH HELL YES. This is a stop-what-you’re-doing-right-now-and-make-these. Right now. So very tasty. And remember, I’m not a peanut/chocolate girl so you know I really mean it. I made these for a shower recently and the boys present – boys! – ate them all, asked me if I had more stashed away and could I please bring them to the bar on Cubs Opening Day? Which I forgot to do but whatever, it was a nice sentiment. Now I have little bits in my freezer to nibble on when no one is looking.
PEANUT BUTTER BARS – the crust was adapted from an Alice Medrich recipe
Makes one 9”x9” pan, 9-16 bars depending on how you cut them. I like to cut tiny 1”x1” bars and get just over 60 pcs after I trim off the edges.
For the crust:
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, soft
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
for the peanut butter layer:
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup cornflakes cereal (about 1/3 cup crushed)
1 cup creamy peanut butter (do not use old-fashioned style or freshly ground)
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon kosher salt
for the chocolate layer:
3 ounces dark chocolate – 60%+ cacao – coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon light corn syrup
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- for the crust: line a 9”x9” cake/brownie pan with parchment paper and set aside.
- melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat
- In a large bowl, combine the sugar, vanilla, salt and melted butter.
- Add the flour and stir until well combined.
- Pat the mixture evenly into the prepared pan and chill for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Bake the chilled crust for 15-18 minutes until golden brown.
- Let cool while preparing the peanut butter layer.
- For the peanut butter layer: Put the cornflakes in a large Ziploc bag and crush finely with a rolling pin. Crush them as fine as you can.
- In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine crushed cornflakes, peanut butter, powdered sugar, vanilla and salt and mix until combined.
- Add melted butter and mixed until combined.
- Spread the peanut butter mixture onto of the cooled crust as evenly as possible.
- Chill while preparing the chocolate layer.
- For the chocolate layer: in a large bowl, combine the chocolate, corn syrup and butter. Melt this until smooth either over a double boiler or in the microwave in 45 second bursts at 50% power, stirring between bursts.
- Stir for 30 seconds until cooled slightly then pour the mixture over the peanut butter layer, titling the pan for an even layer.
- Refrigerate for 1 hour until firm.
- To cut: run a sharp knife around the side of the pan the give the pan a sharp rap to loosen the bars.
- Turn out onto a cutting board and remove the parchment paper from the bottom.
- With a sharp knife, time off the edges if you like for a clean look (or not) and slice into squares, wiping the knife between each cut.
- Bars will keep, tightly wrapped, for several days or freeze for longer storage.