It is scorching hot here in Minneapolis and as humid as a scene from a Tennessee Williams play. Cooking and baking don't sound all that desirable to me at all lately, but we've been diligently (if not enthusiastically) working our way through our CSA produce and farmer's market produce and relatives' garden's produce, stir-frying a lot, raw-food-ing a lot, and dreaming about ice cream. Oh heavens, do I love ice cream.
This post has nothing to do with local produce or hot weather or ice cream, however. I just had all that on my mind and this is my food blog so I thought I'd babble a bit.
What this post is about is sugar and spice and chocolate. Oh yes. And not just any sugar and spice and chocolate. Brown sugar. Ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and orange zest. Bittersweet chocolate. And then also some Grand Marnier just for good measure. Featured below is basically a variation of date bars - and the variation takes them from snack at Grandma's house to something decadent and intense, a bold combination of flavors - homemade granola, spicy mango chutney, and dark dark dark chocolate (like 70% cacao or more). The first bite requires some processing because there is so much going on. And each bite proves more and more intriguing. And this should be on a fancy restaurant's menu.
Chocolate Apricot Squares
Adapted from Leite's Culinaria
Yield: 16-20 bars, depending on how small you cut them
½ lb. dried apricots
2 teaspoons fresh ginger
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
3-4 oz bar bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped, divided
For crust and topping
1 ½ cups quick-cook oats
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour or all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg**
2 teaspoons Grand Marnier
1 teaspoon vanilla
Butter, shortening, or spray to grease pan
Place the apricots in a small saucepan and fill with water until they are covered by about one inch. Bring to boil and simmer for 15 minutes, or until apricots are puffy. Drain the water and let the apricots cool. Set aside until ready to use. (I left them in the refrigerator overnight and they were fine the next day.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease an 8-by-8-inch glass baking dish.
In a food processor, blend the apricots, ginger, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier, orange zest, and spices until the mixture becomes a thick, smooth paste. It will smell and taste delicious, the sweet-spicy-fruity combination is similar to that of a chutney. Scoop the apricot mixture into a bowl and stir in half of the chocolate chunks or chips. Set aside and make the crust and crumble.
Whisk together the oats, flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Separately, in the bowl of an electric mixer, blend the butter and brown sugar on medium speed for about a minute, or until well-combined and creamy. Add the egg (or flaxseed mixture – see below) and continue mixing until incorporated. Next add the vanilla and Grand Marnier. Turn the mixer to low speed and gradually add in the dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated.
In your well-greased baking dish, pour half of the crust/crumble mixture. Flatten with the palm of your hand so that an even 1/4” crust fills the pan. Next, pour the apricot mixture on to the crust and spread evenly on top. Leave a tiny space around the edges to make the bars easier to remove from the pan. Add the remaining chocolate chunks to the remaining crumble mixture and combine with your hands. Dollop tablespoon-sized portions of the crumble evenly on top of the apricot mixture. There should be v. few spaces between the crumble dollops by the time you are done.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees half way through so that it bakes evenly. The bars will be done when the crumble is dry to the touch. Let cool for at least an hour before cutting. The bars will be easiest to cut if you use a sharp knife and rinse between slices.
* Here's a disclaimer about these bars: while I thoroughly enjoyed them, the flavors are undeniably intense - much stronger and spicier than you'd find in a typical American dessert. Sophisticated, like the honey-lemon-herb cake from a few weeks ago. They go great with a beverage that cuts through the intensity, like coffee or a late harvest white wine (two totally different approaches, but they both work). So I just want to throw out there three ideas if you like the idea of this dessert but aren't up for something that your guests will have to ponder over during their first few bites. (1) Substitute 1.5-2 cups apricot preserves for the dried apricot filling. (2) Substitute semisweet chocolate chips or white chocolate chips for the bittersweet. (3) Follow recipe above, but serve bars warm with vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.
** In the interest of full disclosure, I was out of eggs when I made these and actually used my flaxseed + water combination as a substitute: 3 T water + 1 T flaxseed meal, stirred together and set aside for about 10 minutes. I really really really liked how mine turned out, so I thought I'd share with you even the most nitty gritty specifics of how I made them.