Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.
How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).
Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.
By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.
I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).
The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.” A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.
If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!
Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
I said I was on an ATK/Cook’s Illustrated kick lately. My version is slightly adapted from theirs (and mine includes a chocolate option). I suggest toasting more nuts than you’ll need for the recipe–they’re great on top of salads or just general snacking.
2 1/4 cup whole pecans
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons bourbon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/3-1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (optional)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the pecans on a rimmed baking sheet and toast for 5 to 10 minutes, tossing once, until nuts are toasty and fragrant. Set aside to cool.
Line a 9×9 metal baking pan with parchment paper or foil. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.
Place flour, brown sugar, 1/4 cup pecans, salt, and baking powder in a food processor. Process mixture until it resembles coarse cornmeal and the pecans are well incorporated, about five 1-second pulses. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles sand, about eight 1-second pulses. Press mixture evenly into the pan and bake until crust is light brown, about 20 minutes.
While the crust bakes, whisk together brown sugar, melted butter, corn syrup, honey, bourbon, vanilla, and salt in medium bowl until just combined. Add egg and whisk until incorporated. Break up or coarsely chop remaining 2 cups of pecans; set aside.
Remove crust from oven. (For the chocolate variation, sprinkle chocolate pieces over the hot crust, then proceed with the rest of the instructions.) Pour filling on top and sprinkle pecans evenly over top. Bake until top is brown and bubbles at the edges of the pan, 22 to 25 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 1 hour (overnight is best for the chocolate version). Remove bars from pan and transfer to cutting board. Cut into 36 1.5 inch squares.