So, even though I love a bar featuring caramel — like, who doesn’t? — I never intended to develop a recipe for one. Instead, I thought I might riff on this chocolate, pecan and caramel tart. However, a friend begged me to post a recipe for a bar, as she was still obsessing over these espresso caramel bars, a treat I had made for her many moons ago, and so I obliged. As I began musing over chocolate caramel bars, in all their sweet and salty glory, the first salted caramel bar I ever made at home came to mind. It was a recipe from a 2007 issue of Bon Appetit. I loved that bar (basically a millionaire’s shortbread bar) — a lot. So much so, in fact, that years later, when I developed a caramel chocolate bar while working at Baked (“the salted caramel,” or “Twix,” bar), it was the Bon Appetit bar that I was trying to replicate. However, during this most recent chocolate-caramel-bar-go-around, I wasn’t really feeling the shortbread crust, or the caramel made from sweetened condensed milk of my all time fave.
Instead I was feeling a chocolate caramel bar without an actual layer of chocolate (don’t worry chocaholics, I’ve included a chocolate covered variation, as well), and with a chocolate saltine crust, as well as a layer of caramel made the old-school way (with sugar, water and cream). Kind of crazy sounding, I know, but I’d been slightly obsessed with the idea of saltine crusts after reading about Bill Smith’s Atlantic beach pie and making this grapefruit custard pie. Moreover, I had (finally) purchased a bag of black cocoa powder, and kind of loved the idea of combining the saltiness of the crackers with the deep chocolate flavor of the cocoa. And with a thick layer of salty/sweet caramel on top and maybe a sprinkling of flaky Maldon sea salt? Sort of beyond awesome sounding, no?
Thinking that the crust might be the trickier part of developing the bar, I began with researching said unusual crust in earnest, and honestly I was hard pressed to find anything out there calling for crusts with doctored-up saltines. I was treading in uncharted waters and I was kind of psyched. Because I wanted my crust to be uber-chocolate-y, without being cloyingly sweet, I added only a bit of sugar and as much black cocoa as those saltines could handle. The resulting crust came together easily, was almost black in color, salty, chocolate-y and divine. I then turned my attention to the caramel, which — surprise, surprise — proved to be a somewhat thornier endeavor, as I needed a caramel thick enough to stay put on its chocolate-saltine-base (once removed from its pan and cut), but oozy enough to be chewy and caramel-y and delish. Moreover, because I was combining my caramel with a chocolate crust, I wanted to make sure my caramel was just a tad more salty than sweet.
I solved the ooziness issue by combining all the ingredients together and bringing them (slowly) to soft ball (full disclosure: this caramel took me a few tries to get perfect. Am I the only idiot out there whose been cooking her caramel at way too high a temperature all these years??). And, in racking my brain for caramel based treats with chocolate bases that struck the perfect balance of salty and sweet, I, of course, thought of the the caramel chocolate tart at Marlowe and Son in Brooklyn. With a little Nancy Drew-worthy internet sleuthing, I found the Marlowe and Son recipe, only to learn from Lottie and Doof, that the original recipe is actually from Claudia Fleming’s, The Last Course. Needless to say, if Claudia Fleming is responsible for combining a chocolate crust with a caramel filling that Marlowe and Son chooses to serve to its customers, then I knew my chocolate-based caramel bars would be in extremely good company. And if you make them (which I hope you do) I think you will conclude the same. Chocolate-covered or not, these caramel bars will not disappoint.
Salty Caramel Bars with a Black Cocoa (Saltine) Crust
- For the black cocoa saltine crust:
- 38 saltine crackers
- 3 Tbsp black cocoa powder you can substitute dutch process cocoa powder for the black, but the color and deep chocolate flavor will be less intense
- 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
- 8 Tbsp one stick unsalted butter, melted
- For the salty caramel:
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 cups light brown sugar packed
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- A generous 2 tsp flaky sea salt
- 2 tsp corn syrup
- For the chocolate topping optional:
- 3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chopped
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- To make the crust:
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8x8x2 baking pan with cooking spray. Line with parchment so that the paper extends up and past at least two sides of the pan (a parchment sling, as it were) and set aside.
- Place the saltines, cocoa powder, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor, and process the saltines until they are finely ground. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula and add the melted butter. Process until the butter is fully incorporated, scraping down the bowl as needed. Transfer the saltine mixture to the prepared pan, and using your hands, lightly press the crumbs into the bottom of the pan, making the crust into as even and solid a layer as possible.
- Bake the crust for 8 minutes, rotating after 4. The crust should be fragrant when you remove it from the oven. Set it aside to cool.
- To make the salty caramel:
- Combine all of the ingredients in a medium sized sauce pan. Turn the heat to medium and stir the mixture constantly, until the sugar and butter melt. Turn the heat to medium-high, attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and allow the caramel to come to the soft-ball stage, 240 degrees (this took at least 15 minutes on my induction cooktop — be patient, but do not be tempted to turn up the heat). Do not stir the mixture while it cooks.
- Once it reaches soft-ball, quickly remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour the caramel over the crust in the prepared pan and place it in the refrigerator to cool for at least three hours, or, preferably, overnight.
- If not topping the bar with chocolate, remove the pan from the refrigerator once the caramel is quite firm and the pan is cool to the touch (if you slice your bars too early, your crust will be super crumbly). Holding on to the parchment paper, lift the caramel bars from the pan and place on a cutting board. Peel away the parchment and using a large chef's knife, cut the bars into tiny squares (I recommend making six slices along one side, and six slices along the other). Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and let sit for 30 minutes before serving.
- Once you serve the bars, do not be concerned if they get a bit oozy as they sit on the serving platter. or place the bars in the fridge again to firm up. The bars will keep at least 3 to 5 days in the fridge tightly covered.
- To make the chocolate topping:
- If topping the bar with chocolate, place the chocolate and cream in a microwave safe bowl and heat the mixture on high in 30 second increments, stirring the mixture thoroughly after each one. Once the chocolate has melted, the cream is completely incorporated, and the mixture is glossy, pour it over caramel that has cooled for at least two hours, and use a small offset spatula to spread the chocolate evenly.
- Place the pan back in the refrigerator until the chocolate has hardened, at least an hour. Remove the chocolate-covered bar from its pan, using the parchment paper to lift it out, and place it on a cutting board. Peel away the parchment paper and using a large chef's knife, cut the caramel into 36 tiny bars (I recommend making six slices on one side and six on the other). Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and let sit for 30 minutes before serving.
- Once you serve the bars, do not be concerned if they get a bit oozy as they sit on the serving platter. But if the ooziness totally bums you out, place the bars in the fridge again to firm up. The bars will keep at least 3 to 5 days in the fridge tightly covered.