The quest for my inner-Little Brownie Baker

So – Girl Scout Cookies.  What are your favorites?  What are the must-haves you buy up to 3 boxes of? These are the fun questions to ponder while tackling this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings selection: Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars from Baked Elements, which are – in essence – a tribute to a much-loved Girl Scout cookie.

The inspiration for these delectable treats stems from Renato Poliafito’s adoration of the Girl Scout cookies formerly known as Samoas – better known as Caramel deLites nowadays, though they may have changed their moniker yet again. When it comes to Girl Scout cookies, I’m more of a Thanks-a-Lot, Tagalong or (good old-fashioned) Trefoil kinda guy. I feel that Thin Mints have grown tiresome – those ‘little Brownie bakers’ drastically revamped their recipe for Thin Mints over the years, rendering them vaguely blah.

Frankly, I was never one for Samoas, largely because I was not a fan of coconut – and still, really, am not, though I’m coming slowly around to it.  I know I’m not alone in finding plain coconut’s texture a little repulsive – much like clipped fingernails.  My sister has expressed the same disgust.  That, coupled with the taste, has always been enough to trigger that good old gag reflex, which just makes me feel sick overall (see my prior posts regarding my distaste of nuts)!

The slight turning point came when I was introduced to a wonderful little truffle by the Fanny Farmer candy company intriguingly called the Trinidad: a deep, dark chocolate truffle center, coated in white chocolate with bits of toasted coconut that provided just the right bit of yummy crunch.  Since that day, I’m enjoyed toasted coconut in particular as almost a thing of heaven.  I’ve even made a toasted coconut creme brulee that was to die for.  I was delighted to give Renato’s recipe a try this week.  I shunned Samoas when I was younger, but perhaps now I could finally appreciate all the sweet, rich goodness they had to offer.

It’s important to know, first off, that this is a rather involved recipe that bears some reading through first.  You’re going to be working with a rather delicate shortbread cookie crust and a heavily bubbling pot of caramel again.  I found the recipe not too difficult to work through, but am glad I read it over first and had many of my ingredients at the ready.  That being said, while my first attempt at this recipe was not a complete flop, I endured a few trials.

While it’s frequently true that I take most of what the Baked guys write as gospel baking truth, I cannot stress this enough:  you’ll probably want to disregard what the recipe suggests about refrigerating these bars.  Don’t do it.  Leave them at room temperature.  Mine were absolute jawbreakers coming out of the fridge, and when I went to cut into them, I risked cutting myself pretty badly with the large chef’s knife I was using.  I ended up cutting them – as safely as I could – into as many smaller chunks as I could, then actually microwaving the smaller pieces for a few seconds to soften the hard caramel.  This made them easier to cut.

Dipping the bottoms of the bars into the melted chocolate posed a bit of a dilemma, as the shortbread cookie fell off in pieces several times and the excessive scads of toasted coconut on top also came loose – all into the melted chocolate.  As a result, when I got near the end of dipping the bars, the chocolate was a gritty mess, what with all the coconut and cookie crumbs that had fallen into it.  A bit of a mess, yes, but I tried not to let it it get to me too much.  Aesthetically, it may not seem too pleasing, but when you think of it – it’s all going into the same ‘package’.

To decorate the top of the bars, instead of the suggested method of drizzling melted chocolate from a plastic bag, I dipped a whisk into a second small batch of melted chocolate and, with quick, sweeping motions, went all ‘Jackson Pollock’ over the bars.  I like the slap-dash, artistic touch this method of design makes even more (though it does make a slight mess of your countertop!).

When I went to carefully remove a few of the cooled bars from the waxed paper on which I set them to dry, the chocolate came loose from the cookie base (pretty much negating the entire point of dipping the bottoms into the chocolate in the first place). If you opt to do the same, carefully slide a thin metal spatula under the bars to loosen them – chocolate bottom and all – from the paper.

I found these treats to be almost more like a candy bar than a standard cookie.  I enjoyed the overall flavor, though they are on the intensely rich side, so cutting them into smaller bites may be a reasonable option.  The caramel is a wonderful complement to the warm, toasty coconut – and vice versa.  The dark chocolate, surprisingly, tempers and cuts through over the overall sweetness and rounds out the flavors.  I did find that the coconut-caramel layer was a trial on the jaw – rather the consistency of a very chewy caramel candy (my oversight, I’m sure – I think I took the caramel a little far while cooking it – see my suggestion below).  Storing these bars in an airtight container at room temperature seems to be the best, keeping the bars chewier and slightly softer.

While I admire the creative concept of these bars, I confess that they frustrated me sufficiently at points to keep my distance from making them again for a while.  If and when I do, here are a few changes I might make:

1.  I would halve the recipe for the caramel layer.  (I know, I know… can there ever be ‘too much’ caramel?  Apparently, yes.) While this coconut-caramel in particular is pretty scrumptious, it also seemed a touch too thick.  I admit that I was initially a little frightened when I read that there was a entire cup of corn syrup (eeek) in this caramel as a base ingredient – yikes.  Cutting that down to 1/2 cup to begin with might serve to assuage some like-minded fears and panic.  Consequently, I would adjust the amount of coconut down to one cup to be added to the halved caramel mixture.

2.  I would only boil the caramel mixture to about 230-235 degrees Fahrenheit.  I feel that pushing the caramel to 240-245 made it borderline hard-ball candy stage, hence the caramel firming up a little too much.  You should always use your sight and smell judgment when making a caramel – it’s good to have that trusty candy thermometer, yes, but I often find they can read ‘iffy’ and shouldn’t be relied upon too much. Unfortunately, this is a tough one to go on sight with – the recipe suggests you watch for the caramel to turn an amber hue, but with brown sugar in the mixture, it’s pretty much already close in color to amber, so it’s very deceiving.  While you should barely stir a caramel while it’s boiling, I often insert a wood spoon, give it a tiny stir, then take it out and let it cool for a minute or two to check the consistency.

3.  After spreading the caramel onto the cookie base, I would sprinkle maybe half a cup of toasted coconut on top, rather than a cup.  The cup-worth seemed like far too much, and it’s nice to see the warm, brown tones of the caramel peeking through the coconut.

4. I would make a suggestion for bettering the shortbread crust, but I can’t think of it… so I guess this #4 is a moot point.  The dough for the cookie crust seemed fine, though I did have to dust it generously with flour when patting it evenly into the pan prior to baking.  And while cutting the bars up, it shattered into pieces in several spots.  A little frustrating, but honestly, the flakiness and delicacy of the buttery crust is an essential for this recipe, so I don’t know how else one could tweak it to make it sturdier for cutting and then dipping in the chocolate.  Maybe it would be better to paint the chocolate on with an offset spatula or pastry brush?

Good luck!  If you – like Renato – are a Samoa fan, you might want to be a little adventurous in the kitchen and give these a whirl.  If you try my suggestions, let me know how you fared.  Here’s the recipe:  http://bakedsundaymornings.com/2012/11/06/in-the-oven-caramel-coconut-cluster-bars/, and please check out the other bakers’ blogs.

One last note: I will be on vacation in New York City November 16th through the 22nd (Thanksgiving), so chances are I may not be posting next Sunday morning (the recipe is Baked Cheese Grits from Baked Explorations).  I may give the recipe a try for dinner this week, and I’ll see if I can crank out a blog which I can post remotely while in NYC.  I’m posting this note now, as a disclaimer, in case I don’t get to it!

And… oh yeah, I might mention two important things:  I will be seeing Matt and Renato do a presentation in Woodstock, Illinois this Thursday, November 15th – and after that, when I head to NYC, I will actually be AT Baked… on my birthday, November 19th!  Cannot wait.  You can definitely expect a blog on my entire Baked experience when I get back – with photos and everything.  I will do my best to post on Facebook while I am there, so you may want to “like” my Neufangled Desserts page to keep up to date!

If you do not hear from me, I wish you all, dear readers, a very Happy Thanksgiving!  This is the holiday of FOOD and treasured family time together – enjoy and savor every delicious moment of it!

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10 thoughts on “The quest for my inner-Little Brownie Baker

  1. Very Jackson Pollock indeed! Your bars look great. I agree about the caramel. It took forever for me to get it back up to even 240. I gave up once it reacted that temp.
    I can’t wait to hear all about your visit to Baked (and on your birthday, what a treat).

  2. I love the Jackson Pollock reference – very apt! I loved these but skipped the step of dipping the bars in chocolate – I thought it would just be too messy.

    I can’t wait to hear about your Baked adventures!

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, yourself!

  3. Oh, Mark. I love reading your posts every week– great writing, stunning photos, and always HILARIOUS! I actually LOL’ed when I read the Jackson Pollock comment– that was a rather perfect description! I like that look too, and I drizzled in a similar style with my measuring cup. Yay for chocolate mess in the kitchen! :)

    I loved your description of your coconut revolution– so colorful! I have never thought of coconut as resembling fingernail clippings, so um, thanks for that… ;-) But you’re right that toasting it completely transforms the flavor and texture. I didn’t like it growing up, but somewhere along the way I decided it was alright, and now I love it.

    Yes, we certainly both think of BAKED as “gospel baking truth”– sometimes to a fault! I think as we grow as bakers, we figure out what to take literally and which parts to use as guidelines. Great tips at the end, especially #4– LOL! I felt exactly the same way; the shortbread needs improvement, but I’m not sure how to go about that. I have a different recipe for a similar bar and the shortbread turns out awesome every single time, so I wonder if that would work. I’ll try it at some point…

    I am just so excited for you for your book signing and NYC trip– you are going to have the best time!! Can’t wait to read your updates and drool over amazing New York food photos! :)

  4. I opted to keep my bars in the fridge. It stopped me from eating too many of them! They need 20-30 minutes to warm up, which keeps them from being an impulse snack! :) Enjoy your trip, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. I agree 100% with your caramel tips. And your drizzling technique made your bars look so cute!

    Have a great trip, say hi to the guys for me! Happy birthday, too. And… make the grits for dinner. You won’t regret it.

  6. Another great blog! I agree with the too much caramel thing, however it has not stopped me from gobbling these down at an alarming rate. Have an AMAZING time at the book signing and in NYC. Super jealous!! Can’t wait to read/see it all! Travel safe!

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