Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake Bars

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake BarsWhile I love a sweet treat, these days I’m baking more in an attempt to warm up the house than I am in order to have dessert for later on. I know the polar vortex has many of us experiencing single and below-zero temperatures, but as I told my dear mother just recently, “-3°F and -37°F are two different animals, at two different zoos, on two different continents!” Just yesterday, my eyelashes froze together. Like, to the point where I actually couldn’t fully open my right eye. What life is this??

The kitchen has been getting some extra steady use lately then in an attempt to feed, warm, and occasionally defrost, us simultaneously. Most recently, I made these totally decadent peanut butter & pretzel cake bars, which were the result of a literal dream I had after perusing Pinterest too close to bedtime. In a dormant state, my brain mixed the memory of a recipe I had seen pinned from Better Homes & Garden with the recent, whimsy food trend to add pretzels to all sweet things.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake BarsA self-identified sweet-and-salty-aholic, I wholeheartedly support this move – even in my subconscious. So that’s how we got here, to Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake Bars, which doesn’t sound like a terrible place to be, does it? The layers here are what’s important and I think you’ll find them pretty agreeable too. While the BH&G recipe has the base as a chocolate cake, I went with vanilla out of personal preference and layered on top of it this peanut butter cream that is both smooth and airy, almost whipped. Above the peanut butter is a thick, glossy blanket of chocolate ganache topped with the crunch and salt of your favorite pretzels.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake BarsThey’re a perfect little treat for potlucks, lunch boxes, and birthday parties alike. And, honestly, I think you can actually make these look awfully pretty with a little skill in terms of pretzel placement and design – a dirty job that somebody has to do. I was attempting a chevron pattern here, but that went off the rails quickly and yet, I still think whatever this turned into is rather nice to look at. You know, before it got cut into squares and devoured! I can also imagine these looking awfully sweet punched out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter for Valentine’s Day, a sprinkle of crushed pretzels then dusted across the top. Or heart-shaped with white chocolate ganache and red & pink nonpareils! Adorable. Deliciously so, and sure to help snag a valentine or two.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake Bars
Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake

Yields 9-12 bars; Adapted from here.

Note: The original recipe calls for making this in a 15″x10″ pan. I wanted to halve the amount, but also have a thicker, denser base, so I adjusted this to accommodate an 8″x8″ square pan, but used the original amount of cake base . Do what makes sense for you and yours.

1 box of yellow cake mix
1/3 cup of butter, melted
1 egg
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons of creamy peanut butter
1-1/2 cups of powdered sugar
1/2 cup salted peanuts, chopped
3 Tablespoons of whipping cream for peanut butter filling, 2 Tablespoons of whipping cream for ganache
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels
Pretzel sticks or about 3/4 cup of crushed pretzel pieces

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Line an 8″x8″ pan with parchment paper and set aside. In a bowl, combine the cake mix and melted butter and stir until combined. Beat egg in a separate bowl, add to cake batter mixture and incorporate. Pour mixture into the cake pan and bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown along edges. Allow to cool completely. In the meantime, use a hand-mixer or stand mixer to blend the peanut butter, 2 Tablespoons of whipping cream and then add the powdered sugar. If mixture is very thick or dry, thin out with the additional tablespoon of whipping cream or milk. Whip until thoroughly combined and a bit fluffy. Pour over cooled cake base and spread out with an angled cake spatula. Place pan in the refrigerator for at least one hour or until peanut butter layer has firmed up a bit. When it has done so, but before removing from the refrigerator, microwave the chocolate chips and 2 Tablespoons of whipping cream for 30 seconds and stir. If the chips are not yet soft enough to stir until smooth, repeat microwaving at 15 second intervals until melted. Remove pan from refrigerator and pour ganache over top, spreading to cover the surface. Be gentle here, so as not to pull the peanut butter up into the ganache. Top with pretzels in the design or scattering of your choice and return to refrigerator for at least 1 additional hour. Slice into bars when firm, but allow the chill to dissipate before eating, about 15 minutes.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Peanut butter and chocolate. Such a tried and true pair. Familiar, but somehow always still exciting because it’s jut such a perfect match. I was looking for something delicious to send in my Valentine’s Day packages to friends, but was worried about making anything too buttery knowing they would be traveling to either coast in non-refrigerated boxes for two to three days. My search took me around the usual online haunts, through the dessert archive of Pinterest, and then to one of my recipe notebooks where I clip and paste recipes that pique my interest from various magazines and newspapers. Call it antiquated, but it’s tactile and I like that in a hobby after spending so much time reading online all day. These notebooks of mine are pretty meticulous and organized, probably a lot like the famed fastidious journalings of Lewis and Clark…only minus the colonialism.

While looking through my dessert journal, I came across a recipe for flourless peanut butter cookie and while I was sure they’d be delicious, I worried they’d be too soft to mail. Note: if you’ve never made or consumed a flourless cookie or cake, the result is usually that the main flavor is much bolder and richer, while the texture of the food is more delicate, moist and chewy. Meaning, flourless desserts are amazing, they’re just not the most conducive to being handled by the USPS.

To combat the problem, I kept the cookies flourless as written, but added bulk to them with large chunks of dark and bittersweet chocolate. I also made them fairly large and avoided flattening them much in order to keep the cookies sturdy enough to travel, but still soft and chewy enough that they feel luscious and over-the-top. It also helps to not cook these for long. Mine were in and out of the oven in 8 minutes exactly and while that might seem like a short time for such big cookies, you don’t want to go further or the texture will get too crispy and you won’t get that dense, gooey bite you’re looking for when making something flourless. Use a timer, for sure.

While these cookies certainly aren’t any kind of “health food,” they are gluten-free (so long as your peanut butter is unopened or has never seen a knife that just spread jelly on bread containing flour) and use no butter or white sugar. I’ll admit that I normally wouldn’t bother making a dessert that met all three of these qualifications simultaneously, but my faith in peanut butter and chocolate convinced me this was the path to go and I’m one awesome recipe better for it. These are total keepers.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Yields approximately 30 cookies

2 cups of chunky peanut butter
2 cups of light brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
2 teaspoons of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
12 ounces of dark and/or bittersweet chocolate bar, chopped
Note: You can certainly use chips here, but you won’t get that streaky pattern in the cookies or the melty blobs from the bar. The stabilizers in chocolate chips prevent this. Also, I chopped and threw in a few Hershey’s miniatures “Special Dark” bars because they were the last to go in our bag from Valentine’s Day. Someone – not me – ate all of the Mr. Goodbar and Krackle leaving only the bland stuff behind. Ahem.

With a handmixer, beat the peanut butter and the brown sugar together until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs, the baking soda, the salt, and the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Stir in chopped chocolate by hand with a spoon, so as to not pulverize the chunks. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and refrigerate dough for at least 2 hours. You can make this dough up to 3 days in advance, so long as it’s wrapped well. At this point, it’s also freezable.

When you’re ready to bake off your cookies, preheat the oven to 350° and line or grease two cookie sheets. Using a 2-inch cookie scoop or 2 Tablespoons of dough per cookie, drop rounded balls of dough onto the sheets leaving approximately 2 inches between cookies. Fill the baking sheets and then go back and gently flatten the top of each mound with your fingers. This will help the cookies level off, but keep their structure. Bake for 8 minutes – no more than 10 if you want a slightly crispier edge – or until the edges are lightly browned and the center is barely set. The chocolate in the center of the cookie might seem only barely melted, depending on the size of the chunks. This is ok, as they will continue to melt a little as they sit. Allow cookie to sit on baking sheet for 5 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool for 10 more minutes.

When cooled, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for about a week. You can freeze the baked cookies, too. When eating cooled and stored cookies, feel free to bring them back to “just baked” stage with a quick 5-10 second zap in the microwave.