Pecan pie’s cookie cousin.
Think of a really good pecan pie. Now imagine dark, caramel toffee on top of butter cookies. Put it all together, and you have this recipe for pecan pie toffee bars, a buttery-sweet treat with a crisp cookie crust and pecans baked into a rich, caramelized toffee topping.
Pecan pie can be very rich. And to be honest, it is not the most attractive dessert, either, just sitting there all brown and plain. But in smartly-cut shortbread bar form, they take on a sophisticated, attractive — not to mention delicious — air.
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From The C.I.A. Pastry School Kitchen to Your Kitchen
Pastry school, like regular school, works its curriculum from beginner level to advanced. My first pastry school rotation at The Culinary Institute of America (a.k.a. the “other” C.I.A.) was muffins and quick breads. Next up, cookies and simple pastries like pies and tarts.
By the time graduation rolled around, we were making wedding cakes and fancy plated desserts from The French Laundry, where one of my instructors had been the founding pastry chef.
I learned to make this recipe — we called them pecan diamonds — somewhere in rotation two, after chocolate chip cookies but before persnickety cookies like checkerboard shortbreads and hazelnut linzer cookies. (I could still have nightmares about that fussy hazelnut linzer dough.)
In other words, these are not the most simple bar cookies, but they are not the hardest, either. The most difficult elements are 1) the time, and 2) heating sugar to a certain temperature. This recipe is a two-step process of baking the shortbread base, adding the pecan topping, and baking again.
Recipe Notes: Pecan Pie Shortbread Bars
- The shortbread dough should be docked. Those are pastry terms meaning poked all over with a fork, which helps prevent puffing when baked. Be sure to chill the dough well for at least an hour before baking.
- The bourbon is optional
- Special equipment: You will need a 1) candy or probe thermometer, and a 2) quarter sheet pan. I find quarter sheet pans indispensable and a good investment for baking or roasting small quantity foods.
- The sugar should be heated to 240 degrees Fahrenheit. This is known as the soft ball stage, where the sugar can form a soft, sticky ball. This is the ideal temperature for fudge, caramels, and pralines. And these pecan bars, of course.
- While baking, the filling has a tendency to puff up, and could leak over the pan edge. So have your lined cookie sheet resting atop a larger sheet pan to catch any overflow.
Did you make these pecan pie toffee bars? How were they?
Pecan Pie Toffee Bars
For the Shortbread Crust
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose or cake flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, slightly softened
For the Pecan Filling
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (1/2 pound) plus 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon bourbon, optional
- 1 pound of pecan pieces (4 packed cups)
- 1 teaspoon or more flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, to garnish
For the Shortbread Crust
- In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, powdered sugar, and salt. Add the cubed butter and process until everything is even crumbles. The texture will be like lightly-moistened sand.
- Add the egg yolk, water, vanilla extract, and lemon zest (if using). Mix in the food processor until the dough comes together in a large ball. It is ok if there is a little loose dough, but it will basically be a whole ball.
- Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly-floured surface. Knead it a few times into a smooth ball. Do not overwork the dough.
- Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a flat, even rectangle 1/8" thick and slightly larger than 6"x9" . Lift the dough and gently lay the dough in the sheet pan so that it completely lines the bottom and sides. Press the dough gently into place and trim any excess lopping off the edges. Dock with a fork. Wrap and chill the dough for a least one hour or up to two days.PRO TIP: I like to roll the dough out on top of parchment cut to size. That way, I can easily lift the tart shell into place on the parchment and not worry about tearing the delicate dough.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Unwrap the tart shell. Bake until very light brown at the edges, about 15 minutes.
For the Pecan Filling and to Finish
- Combine the butter, sugars, honey, and cream in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the butter melts, do not stir any longer. Cook until the mixture reaches 240°F, known as soft ball stage. Add the nuts and bourbon (if using) and stir until fully mixed.
- Immediately pour the nut mixture over the shortbread crust and spread evenly with a spatula. Take care not to touch the hot sugar.
- Place the quarter sheet pan on a full sheet pan to catch any filling that bubbles over. Bake at 350°F for 40 minutes, until the filling bubbles and foams evenly across the surface and the crust looks golden brown. Cool completely in the pan, ideally overnight.
- If the sheet pan has been lined with parchment, slide the sheet of pecan bars onto a cutting board. If the sheet pan is unlined, invert it onto a cutting board, then turn it right side up again.
- Trim the edges, and cut into 2" x 2" squares. PRO TIP: After trimming the edges, use a ruler and a knife to mark a notch every two inches on the length and width of the cookie sheet before cutting. That way, it will be easy to make even cuts. Don't worry if you run slightly short or long.
- Sprinkle all over with flaky sea salt, such as fleur de sel or Maldon. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.