Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Regina Velazquez: Blue Ribbon Mom (with a Recipe for Dreamy Almond Bars)

Storey’s editorial production manager considers the benefits of taking one’s talent before a judge.

Dreamy Almond Bars. Photo © Michael Piazza Photography, excerpted from The Maple Syrup Cookbook, 3rd Edition. All rights reserved.
“Mama, your cookies look better than those.”

That was the gauntlet casually tossed down by one of my kids in the exhibit hall of a local agricultural fair one year. I had never entered anything in a fair before, but the next summer I found myself toting a plate of six perfect (or so I thought) chocolate chip cookies to the fair on the day before the gates opened. I didn’t win first prize. I didn’t place at all, in fact. I was truly flattered by the outrage my kids expressed that day, and it was a good chance to teach them about losing gracefully. Still, they have felt the sting of injustice ever since.

I felt something else, however: the spirit of community. Something about walking the fairgrounds before the fair opened was like being backstage. Vendors were still setting up their booths, farmers were coaxing their animals out of trailers, and gardeners were carefully carrying and arranging their precious vegetables on paper plates. Everyone was happy and smiling and excited. It was electric, magical — a true celebration of the harvest. When you come to the fair without having done anything, you can certainly experience and enjoy it; but when you participate, you become part of it.
I decided to enter the maple dessert competition and — yes, again — the chocolate chip cookie contest. The Dreamy Almond Bars on the end took second place in the maple dessert category.
As summer wound down this year, I wanted my children, now 7 and 8, to catch that same spirit. I’ll admit, it required a lot of extra energy to corral their efforts, and I applaud my husband for averting many teary storms and tantrums in the last hours before we carted our wares to the fairgrounds. But the kids’ excitement beforehand and the look of pride on their faces when they discovered their first-place ribbons made it all worthwhile.

I was the only one in our family who didn’t win a blue ribbon. I got second place for both my entries, and that was fine with me. I had achieved my goal of letting the kids contribute to an old tradition of displaying their valuable skills and talents. I felt like a blue ribbon mom.
We settled on cookie baking and coloring for my son, doll making and flower arranging for my daughter, and photography and bread making for my husband. The winners share a giggle over their prize haul.

Dreamy Almond Bars

These bars are entirely out of the question if you value your waistline. You could easily put on several pounds just reading this recipe, let alone eating it. On the other hand, this makes a large batch, to be cut into small pieces, so you could stash away a piece or two for yourself and put out the rest for a Christmas or New Year’s gathering. I specify a 10- by 15-inch jelly-roll pan, but I have also used an 11- by 17-inch pan. It’s not a difficult recipe, but you should read the instructions through before starting, just to be sure of the technique.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg, at room temperature
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup (1 stick) butter
¾ cup pure maple syrup
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¼ cup honey
¼ cup heavy cream
2 cups chopped almonds
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the crust:
  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C. Lightly grease a 10- by 15-inch jelly-roll pan.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl. When light, beat in the egg. Add the flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, working it in with a wooden spoon. Divide the dough into four pieces and put a piece in each quadrant of the jelly-roll pan.
  3. Push the dough into the pan with floured hands, forming a seamless crust. Keep it as even as you can and work it up the sides to the top of the rim. It won’t look perfect, but just do the best job you can; if you want to flatten it out some, roll it with a pin. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 15 minutes. Poke the dough three or four times with a fork, then bake for 15 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack. Mix a tiny amount of flour and water together to make a thick paste, and rub a little into the fork holes to close them up.
For the topping:
  1. After the crust has cooled for about 20 minutes, melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the maple syrup, sugar, and honey and bring to a boil. When it boils, add the cream and bring back to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes. Quickly remove from the heat and stir in the almonds and vanilla. Spread evenly over the crust.* Bake for 20 minutes; it will bubble and darken somewhat. Let cool thoroughly on a wire rack, then cut into bars.
*Regina’s note: I sprinkled about ½ teaspoon of flaky sea salt over the topping before baking. It was divine.

Recipe excerpted from The Maple Syrup Cookbook, 3rd Edition ©1989, 2001, 2015 by Ken Haedrich. All rights reserved.

The Maple Syrup Cookbook, 3rd Edition: Coming in December!

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