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Sweets for a Southern New Year: Bourbon Pecan Squares

There are few things I enjoy more than a party; the planning, the prepping, the primping. Except for maybe wrestling with invite lists and cleaning up, it’s all good. Which it should be no surprise to anyone that I was to be found bright and early on New Year’s Day out in idyllic Hillcrest, helping good friends prepare for a feast. A Southern, vegetarian New Year’s feast.

Sigh. So, yeah, Southern food… not my forte, particularly when the (delicious, delicious) crutch of pork is verboten. That said, it was a relief that the mains–black eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread–had already been chosen by the host. I just had to help make sure that they came out right and take care of the things on the edges. So, to that list of Southern staples for good luck in the new year, I added cheese straws and deviled eggs up front, a bright grapefruit and fennel salad on the side, and red velvet cake and pecan squares to finish up.

With that menu, 14 packets of fresh peas, 8 enormous bunches of collards, 4 dozen eggs, 2 dozen grapefruit, and $25 worth of white chocolate… among other things… we managed to successfully sate 25 people who were all impressed that we’d manage to do so a la veggie. We even managed to kill each other in the kitchen, despite a variety of heated Mason-Dixon arguments on what cornbread should be, the… uh… “merits” of vegetarian bacon, and how spicy the greens should be. Hooah.

Per the voting that we did on facebook last week, you’re getting the pecan bars today. They landed in second behind a kale salad and in front of the red velvet cake. If y’all (*hem*) are interested in how a Yankee and a vegetarian from Richmond make black eyed peas and collards, just let me know. I can write those up too.

This recipe makes a TON of pecan squares, which, I think, is the correct amount. I’ve grown to like pecan bars over pie because the nut-crust-filling ratio is better. Lots of crunchy, flavorful nuts; enough buttery crust to hold on to; and just enough sweet-salty, caramelly glue to hold it all together. Too often with pecan pie there’s too much gungy, syrupy sweet filling and everything else gets drowned out. Not so here. More nuts, more bourbon, more salt, and a touch of espresso powder makes the bars stand up and stand out, in an addictive, grown up kind of way. Bliss.

Two final things: toast the pecans first. I know, I know, we’re baking them anyway, but trust me, it makes a difference. Also, PAY ATTENTION to the drop in oven temperature between parbaking the crust and the final baking that includes the filling. Don’t frag everything after all the work you’ve put into these.

Pecan Squares
Yield: ~90 ~1.5″ squares

1/2 c sugar
1 c unsalted butter, softened
3 c flour
1/2 tsp salt

8 tbs butter
1 1/2 c light brown sugar
1 1/4c golden refiner’s syrup*
2 tsp flaky sea salt, divided
5 c pecan pieces
5 tbs bourbon, divided (optional)
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp espresso powder
5 eggs, large

Toast the pecans. Turn the oven on to 350°F and position a rack in the middle of the oven. Spread the pecan pieces over a 1/2 sheet pan (18″ x 13″), and let toast till fragrant. If you put them in the oven when you turn it on, give them about 10 min. If the oven’s already hot, 5 min. As always, trust your eyes and nose. Once they smell toastily delicious, they’re done. Remove pan from oven, remove the nuts to a bowl to cool, and let the pan cool.

Make the crust.

Lightly butter the bottom and sides of the cooled 1/2 sheet pan. Line the pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil (shiny side UP). Whichever you use, trim it so that it fits snugly into the bottom of the pan and up over the sides a few inches with no crinkles at the corners. A standard 13″ wide roll of parchment or foil will need to be cut down a little to fit lengthwise into the pan.

Spread the crust mixture evenly over the bottom of the lined pan and press gently to even it out and compress it down a little. Dock the crust lightly with a cake tester or toothpick, making little holes every few inches to help prevent buckling. Put the pan in the oven and bake 20 min, till lightly golden.

Meanwhile, make the filling. In a medium saucepan combine the butter, brown sugar, refiner’s syrup, 1 tsp of the salt, and espresso powder. Stirring, bring to a boil over medium heat–the whole surface of the pan will be covered with big glossy bubbles. Cook for an additional 1 minute and remove from the heat. Mix in the pecans, vanilla, and bourbon. Let cool for 5 minutes before stirring in the eggs. To be safe, whisk the eggs together in a separate bowl and temper them. Pour a little of the warm pecan mixture into the eggs and mix it in energetically. Then dump the egg mixture into the rest of the pecan mixture and stir till totally combined.

When the crust is done parbaking, pull it from the oven and reduce the temperature to 325°F. Pour the filling over the hot crust, using a spatula to ensure that the pecans are evenly distributed. Sprinkle over the reserved flaky salt and return to the oven. Bake till filling is set, about 45 min.

Remove from oven and sprinkle over the reserved bourbon. Use a small metal spatula to loosen the edges of the pecan squares, but then let them cool to room temperature in the pan. For cleanest cuts, put the whole pan into the refrigerator for an hour to chill before lifting the baked pecan squares out and cutting into service pieces.

Will keep, tightly wrapped, at room temperature for several days.
Notes & Variations
Golden refiner’s syrup is a nice, lightly caramelly alternative to corn syrup, but the latter will suffice if you can’t find the golden syrup–the brand most common is Lyle’s and can most likely be found where either the molasses or British foods live at the grocery store.

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