Forget Christmas and my birthday and Thanksgiving and every other holiday that comes around once a year. My favorite day? Opening day of the outdoor farmers markets in Chicago.
When my two favorite markets open in a few weeks, I know I won’t find the near-overwhelming cacophony of colors and textures and tastes that come in July and continue through October. That’s ok. For now I’ll be happy to ease into spring with little shoots of green, a color it feels like I haven’t really seen in months.
But green things aren’t what I’m talking about today. Among all the fruits and vegetables and amazingly colorful array of eggs is one of my all-time favorite stands even during the winter market–the honey guy. I can, and have, spent half an hour at his stand sampling and chatting with the quiet, unassuming owner about which flavors are best for what, tasting the amazingly apparent differences between varieties. I’ll watch him wave the bees away from his samples as he talks to other customers and I try to decide between tupelo, buckwheat, cranberry blossom, or (my favorite, as in I have a 5 pound bottle of it in my cupboard) basswood-linden.
There are a million and one ways to use honey of course; my favorites are drizzled over really good yogurt with the freshest mid-summer fruit or on a warm, buttered biscuit. For the stronger, almost molasses-like honeys (buckwheat, chestnut, etc.), it’s a bit more of a challenge. Like really good chocolate, the sweetness has an underlying bitterness that makes it more interesting, but it can overwhelm in the same applications as the lighter honeys. I’ve been kind of stumped as to a good use. Then, I found these.
I don’t know how it’s taken me so long to get on the bandwagon of David Lebovitz fans; maybe because Paris has never been at the top of my list of dream destinations (yes, I’m aware I’m insane). But his recipes hit on a lot of the things I love–simple and classic and delicious–and his writing is funny and so unpretentious. Plus, at least the past few months, he seems to post the exact thing I’m looking for before I even know I need it.
Such was the case in March with these gallette des rois I made in miniature for that month’s Chicago Food Swap. It happened again this month with his recipe for almond honey bars, the perfect use for the half bottle of buckwheat honey sitting in my cupboard that was destined for these (they also made for a big hit at this month’s swap).
The bars are a crisp, crumbly, almond-y shortbread topped with a butter/almond/orange/honey brittle that’s a perfect showcase for a great, strong honey. The funny thing is that I actually forgot the sugar the first time I made them and didn’t even realize it until I made a second batch. They’re amazingly good either way: with the sugar, the topping layer is thicker, stickier, sweeter (obviously); without the sugar, the honey bakes more fully into the shortbread and the bitterness comes through more with more crunch from the sliced almonds. The orange and almond compliment the honey perfectly in both versions.
With less than two weeks to go until the 2014 markets move outdoors, I’m obviously looking forward to those first fresh, beautiful, green things. But I really hope my honey guy is back too.
Honey Almond Bars
Makes about 25 small squares. Slightly adapted from David Lebovtiz’s recipe. As mentioned above, these work with or without the sugar in the topping depending on what you have a taste for.
1/2 cup almond meal
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
1/3 cup sugar (optional)
2 tablespoons dark honey, such as buckwheat or chestnut
zest of 1 orange
1/4 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon orange flower water (optional)
1 cup sliced almonds
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a 9-inch square baking pan with aluminum foil, pressing it up the insides of the pan. Lightly grease the foil with softened butter.
For the crust, whisk together the almond flour, all-purpose flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. With a fork or pastry cutter, cut in the 6 tablespoons of butter until the mixture resembles very coarse cornmeal. In a seperate small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk, water, vanilla and almond extract and stir until the dough comes together. If it’s too dry (mine was), add another tablespoon of water.
Press the dough into the pan so it covers the bottom evenly. Bake the dough until the edges are golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes, and remove from the oven.
While the dough is baking, make the topping by melting the remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan. Once it has melted, add the honey, orange zest, vanilla, salt, sugar (if using), and orange flower water (if using), stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and add the sliced almonds, stirring until they’re completely coated with the butter-honey mixture.
Scrape the almond mixture onto the still warm crust and spread it evenly over the top. Bake for another 12 to 14 minutes more, or until the almond topping is deeply brown and bubbling (if you don’t use the sugar in the topping, this will happen closer to 12 minutes).
Cool completely before removing from the pan by lifting out the foil. Cut into squares.
These are best within a day or two, but will still be tasty (if slightly softened) up to five days.