Espresso Caramel Shortbread Bars / by Chelsea Zwieg

Last year I shared a recipe for these peppermint bark cookies which are, to this day, my very favorite christmas cookie. They are possibly the easiest concept to exist in cookie land but they are just the best. Since sharing the same cookie recipe over and over again probably wouldn't win me many blogging points, I wanted to find a way to change them up a little bit. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that these bear no similarities to peppermint bark cookies, so clearly I didn't tweak so much as completely change everything. It's just what I do, I can't help it. 

One thing that has stayed the same is the shortbread base, which I think should really be the base for all bars, cookies, pies, tarts....really just everything. If I could use it as the foundation of a house, I would. In this case it's an espresso shortbread but it still uses the best ratio of brown sugar to white sugar that makes it super soft and chewy but still strong enough to hold up all of the great things we are going to pile on. 

After the shortbread is baked it gets a layer of caramel made up of dark brown sugar, butter and cream. If you thought caramel made with white sugar and water was good (and it is) get ready to pass out from the force of the caramel revelation you are about to have. It's super smooth and buttery with major brown sugar taste. UGH. I just can't even handle it. I know I sound like an infomercial host for caramel, but seriously, if that was a real job and it meant I got to eat this caramel all day.....I would be starting tomorrow.

After you freak out about the caramel (it can't just be me), the final layer is a coffee filled chocolate ganache and a generous sprinkle of sea salt. If coffee is not your thing, you can easily leave it out of both the shortbread and the chocolate and have some equally good caramel shortbread bars. Or add some orange zest to the shortbread and ganache for a little citrus thang. You can cut these as big or little as you want and package them up as hostess gifts, stocking stuffers or i'm-obsessed-with-this-caramel-just-eat-it-and-agree-with-me gifts. Just do yourself a favor and make a second pan for your own cookie needs. 

Espresso Caramel Shortbread Bars

Caramel adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

| Ingredients

Shortbread: 

  • 3/4 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tsp. instant coffee
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Caramel: 

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar

Chocolate: 

  • 1 1/2 cups dark chocolate chips
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tsp. instant coffee
  • sea salt, optional

| Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350. Line an 8x8 baking pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on two sides. 
  • In the bowl of stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape the bowl. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat to combine. 
  • In a small bowl, combine the instant coffee with just enough water to dissolve it and form a thick paste, about 1/2 tsp. Add the dissolved coffee to the shortbread and mix well. Add the flour and salt and mix until just combined. 
  • Press the shortbread into an even layer in the prepared pan. This can be done with floured fingertips or a small rolling pin. I think the easiest way is to press it down with your fingers, place another piece of parchment over it and use a small rolling pin or your palm to make it extra smooth. Pierce the crust with a fork all over. 
  • Bake the crust 25-30 minutes until golden brown and just beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. 
  • Once the crust is baked, make the caramel. Place the butter, cream and sugar in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until smooth. Increase the heat to bring the mixture to a boil and cook, without stirring, until it reaches 240 on a candy thermometer. I actually like to pull it a few degrees earlier because by the time I get my shizz together enough to pour it into the pan it will have reached 240 exactly. 
  • Pour the caramel on top of the shortbread and tilt pan as necessary to create an even layer. Cool for 10 minutes then place in the freezer and chill for 20 minutes. 
  • Once the caramel is firm, place the chocolate chips and cream in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until melted and smooth. Add the instant coffee and stir to dissolve. Pour the melted chocolate over the caramel and use a spatula or knife to smooth it out. Let chill until the chocolate is firm. Sprinkle with sea salt, if desired.