Cookie of the Month: Feeling the (red-hot) love via bars

It probably sounds strange that when it comes to Valentine’s Day, I think of sugar cookies, not chocolate. Maybe I have holiday goodie dissociative disorder, but my Feb. 14 tastes run directly back to childhood, where, along with white embossed cherry suckers and chalky conversation hearts, there are sugar cookies, too, that I crave every year. I cannot recall specifically who made them (either a school chum or a school chum’s mum) — rolled vanilla sugar cookies of the softest kind, cut into heart shapes and frosted with buttery icing in the palest pink and decorated with ruby red hots candies. 

Visually, they were simple beauties, but that taste of vanilla, butter and hot cinnamon created a bit of magic, a spell so strong that it is these I dream of and long for each Valentine’s, not a box of bon buns (although I won’t pass up on that, either). My sugar cookie baking usually comes after Christmas with my own take on these Valentine hearts, but I also discovered an intriguing idea this year of turning sugar cookies into bars.

The recipe again comes from The New York Times (who adapted it from the book “American Girls Cookies”), one of those cookie recipe onslaughts that comes during the holidays. I tabled this cookie recipe and knew exactly when I would make it (their version even gave a nod to what I would do, as they frosted their cookie bars in pink, but used colored sprinkles as a finish).

I chose the very appropriate red hot hearts to decorate the top of my cookie bars, and was excited to make the recipe. As much as I loved the rolled-out sugar cookie hearts, there was a good bit more time devoted to the process — mixing, chilling dough, rolling out and cutting out of shapes, baking, frosting — than the cookie would have in bar form.

I was curious how a simple sugar cookie would work as a bar, texture and taste-wise. Any doubts of deliciousness were erased with the addition of eight ounces of cream cheese to the eight ounces of butter called for in the dough. This would not only make the cookies moist, but provide a richness and great flavor.

I took my own liberty of adding just a little bit of lemon zest, along with the egg and vanilla to the creamed butter, cream cheese and sugar. Lemon was called for in the frosting, and most of the great sugar cookie recipes I like include lemon juice or zest in the cookie dough, as well.

The cookie bar recipe includes no leavening, just flour and salt, which gave more credence to the cream cheese for a tender, chewier texture to the bars versus a snappy shortbread consistency. The finished dough was quite soft, like a drop cookie batter.

I spread the dough evenly in a 13- by 9-inch glass baking pan that had been buttered and lined with parchment paper (I’m becoming a big believer of this for most bar cookie recipes). 

The finished cookie bar slab baked in 25 minutes to a light, pale golden (almost looking like a cheesecake). I lifted the bar slab out of the pan after about 15 to 20 minutes post-baking to allow further cooling.

The frosting recipe for the cookies is also butter-based, with confectioner’s sugar, a little cream or milk, a teaspoon of lemon juice and 2 to 3 drops of food coloring. Here I chose my red to create that perfect pale pink of long ago Valentine’s. I spread the length of the slab with a coating of the fluffy frosting.

I made random droppings of red hot hearts, bombing the pink slab until it was sufficiently punctuated with that bright red.

The bars cut beautifully…they were firm, but soft, with a fine, dense texture. All cut, with their random dots of red hot, they resembled pink dominos or a frosted card deck.

]T]he bars were as soft and tender as their softest rolled-out counterpart, and offered a thicker bite into my favorite tastes of buttery vanilla, soft fluffy icing and a hit of bold red-hot cinnamon. And I was reminded of eating the cookies with the red hots attached, allowing a cinnamon-y crunch amid all the softness, along with my habit of picking off the red hots to savor after, leaving cinnamon-infused craters in a pink landscape. I could (but probably should not) eat them as my dessert/snack/coffee break every day.

Sugar Cookie Bars

From The New York Times (https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1020697-sugar-cookie-bars)

Makes 20 bars

FOR THE BARS:

  • 1 cup/225 grams unsalted butter (2 sticks), at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
  • 2 ¾ cups/350 grams all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 (8-ounce/225-gram) package cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 ½ cups/300 grams granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

FOR THE FROSTING:

  • 6 tablespoons/85 grams unsalted butter (3/4 stick), at room temperature
  • 2 cups/245 grams confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 tablespoon milk or heavy cream, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, plus more as needed
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • A drop or two of gel food coloring (optional)
  • Assorted sprinkles, for decorating (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Line the pan with parchment paper, running it up the two long sides of the pan and letting it extend past the rim by about 2 inches.

Make the bars:

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and cream cheese on medium speed until well blended, about 1 minute. Add the granulated sugar and beat until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the egg and vanilla and beat on low speed until well combined, about 1 minute. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Gradually add the flour mixture, mixing on low speed just until blended, about 1 minute.

Using a spatula, scrape the dough into the prepared baking pan and spread it into an even layer. Bake just until the edges are starting to turn light golden brown, and a toothpick inserted in the middle has moist crumbs, 20 to 25 minutes. (Do not over bake!

The bars should be quite moist, and almost slightly under baked in the middle. Remove the pan from the oven and set it on a wire rack. Let cool completely. When fully cooled, remove the bars from the pan using the overhanging parchment paper.

Make the frosting: Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat the butter on medium speed until creamy, about 1 minute.

Add 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, beating on low speed until fully combined, then repeat with remaining 1 cup confectioners’ sugar.

Add the 1 tablespoon milk or heavy cream, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, the vanilla, salt and food coloring, if using, and beat on medium speed until the frosting is light and fluffy, scraping down the sides halfway through, about 4 minutes. Add more milk if needed to thin out the mixture.

Add lemon juice and vanilla to taste.

Using a spatula, spread the frosting on top, then decorate with sprinkles, if using.

Cut into 20 bars and serve.

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