It’s all about the moment. Some call it the sweet spot. It usually happens before the finishing touches are applied. You know it’s the moment because the hot cake layer faultlessly falls from the tin onto the cooling rack. It’s when the crimson-red rhubarb, concealed under buttery crumble, starts to bubble up. It is yeasted doughnuts nurtured to perfect proof and bobbing away in hot oil, and the telltale trembling of a cheesecake you are bringing out of the oven. The assurances are there, in that moment, that the bake is beautiful.
I blame these bars for my ever-tightening pants. I’ve never been able to refuse them, because that squishy caramel filling floors me every time. I strew the top with toasted walnuts and salt flakes to balance its shocking sweetness.
A little insider info regarding the base: use melted butter to bind it. It creates a perfectly crumbly cookie layer that’s a cinch to smooth evenly into the tin. There are a million ways to make these, but these are the best bars, bar none.
chocolate caramel bars with a salty sprinkle (makes 14 bars, each 3cm x 11cm)
Takes About 1½ hours to make and bake, then more time to cool down.
Keeps for one day at room temperature, then refrigerated for 1–2 weeks.
180 g unsalted butter 220 g plain (all-purpose) flour
50 g icing (confectioners’) sugar
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
380 g sweetened condensed milk
50 g dark muscovado (dark brown) sugar
100 g dark corn syrup
100 g unsalted butter
2 g fine sea salt
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped (or 1 teaspoon vanilla paste)
40 g raw walnuts
200 g dark chocolate (60–70% cocoa)
15 g unsalted butter
½ teaspoon sea salt flakes
Preheat the oven to 160°C. You will need a 23 cm square, 5 cm deep cake tin. Cut two pieces of baking paper as wide as the tin and long enough to cover the sides, with some excess paper overhanging. Spray the tin with cooking oil spray and lay one piece of paper across the base of the tin and up the sides, then place the second piece on top (to form a crosshatch). The paper will allow you to lift the slice out of the tin easily.
To make the base, melt the butter and leave to cool a little. Put the flour, icing sugar and salt in a heatproof mixing bowl and stir to combine. Pour the butter into the dry ingredients and mix with your hands to form a sticky paste. Press the mix into the prepared tin and smooth it out with an offset spatula.
Bake for 45 minutes until the base is a tan biscuity colour. If any bubbles form under the base while baking, just prick them with a skewer to gently deflate them. Place the walnuts (for the topping) on a baking tray and toast them, at the same time as the base, for about 20 minutes, or until deep golden brown.
Clean the mixing bowl. Choose a saucepan that will allow you to nestle the bowl on top, without it touching the water below. Fill the pan with 5 cm of water and bring to a gentle simmer on the stovetop.
To make the caramel filling, put all the filling ingredients in the cleaned bowl. Place the bowl on top of the pan of simmering water over a medium–low heat, stirring well occasionally, until the butter has fully melted and emulsified. The consistency should be thick and gloopy and the colour just a shade darker – this will take about 10 minutes. Fish out the vanilla bean if you chose that vanilla option.
There are two things to look out for here. If the filling overheats and separates, quickly whisk in 40g of condensed milk or cream to re-emulsify. If the flames lick up the side of the saucepan and cause the caramel to burn on the side, scrape out the affected burnt areas as best you can, then keep on cooking it on a lower heat.
Set aside at room temperature. Take the walnuts out of the oven and cool to room temperature. As soon as the base is ready, remove from the oven and immediately scrape the caramel filling over the top.
If the base cools too much, it will recede from the sides of the tin, which will leave the edges of the baked filling without a base underneath it (still delicious though!)
Reduce the oven to 120°C. Return the filled base to the oven and bake for 15–20 minutes. If it starts to brown too quickly, reduce the oven slightly and continue to bake. When cooked, the middle will feel set and a little rubbery (be careful when you touch it – it’s caramel hot) and the sides should be starting to blister and turn light brown. Remove and leave to cool completely for 1–2 hours at room temperature (or for a shorter time in the fridge, but I feel the sandy texture of the base is compromised when cold, so just a brief chill in the fridge is best).
To make the topping, melt the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of just-boiled water. Stir thoroughly and then pour it over the top of the caramel. Smooth lightly with an offset spatula or simply tilt the tin to distribute the chocolate. Crush the walnuts with your hands over the top and sprinkle over the salt flakes.
Choose your ooze factor and cool the slice until the chocolate is set to your liking – glistening and runny (about 15 minutes) or firm (about 45 minutes). Take hold of the excess paper on the sides, then shimmy and lift the slice out of the tin and place onto a chopping board. Peel the paper away from the sides. Dip a serrated knife in hot water, dry and chop into bars.
Beatrix Bakes by Natalie Paull published by Hardie Grant will be available from North Melbourne store + all good bookstores from this Sunday March 1st! For now, you can pre-order it here.
Tuesday – Sunday, 9am-4pm
698 Queensberry Street
North Melbourne, Victoria