My earliest memory is of running along a Hawaiian beach with my mom. I was three.
Unfortunately, that was the last time I visited Hawaii.
Fortunately, a little of Hawaii came to visit me this past summer. My dear friend Amelia brought back 2 huge bags of macadamias from a nut farm that she worked on last spring. One bag contained shelled nuts, roasted varying shades of toasty beige, and the other held the nuts still in their shell, looking like hard, brown marbles of many sizes.
Amelia roasted the unshelled nuts in the oven for the proscribed amount of time, and it was around 10 pm when we tried to crack one open with a hammer on a cutting board. After a few deafening whacks, we decided that cracking macadamias was not an apartment-at-night sort of task; at least, not unless one wished to make enemies of the neighbors.
But some of the shelled nuts went into cookies, along with chunks of vanilla bean-flecked white chocolate, lime zest and flaky salt. Others made an anchor for coconut lemongrass ice cream, served with ginger pineapple upside-down cake.
I’d been hoarding the rest of the macs in the fridge, waiting for inspiration to strike. And it did the other day, as it usually does, when I flipped through one of my favorite cookbooks, Williams Sonoma’s Essentials of Baking. I love that this book has all of the classics – apple pie, chocolate chip cookies, whole wheat bread, chocolate cake – with a healthy dose of originals thrown in: lavendar polenta coffeecake, raspberry-fig galettes, strawberry mascarpone tart.
Caramel macadamia tartlets were one such recipe. But it was the variation that sealed the deal, which suggested topping the tartlets with chocolate ganache. I imagined a shower of flaky salt topping the ganache, and the thought of buttery crust, toasty nuts, dark chocolate and flaky salt all together in one confection made me get to work.
As I was going to a gathering of local writers, I decided to make these in bar form, to be cut into bite-sized, cocktail-party-appropriate squares. Though the recipe has three components, all are quick and easy to throw together, and the resulting confection looks and tastes like something you’d buy in a fancy box at an elegant sweet shop. In fact, these would make superb holiday gifts.
When the bars had been baked, carameled, ganached, salted, chilled and cut, I worried that the pieces were too big, and the bars too rich. But that didn’t seem to stop the guests at the gathering, or Jay – the bars were duly devoured while many eyes rolled heavenward and fingers were licked.
I love the mild richness of these nuts here so that I hesitate to suggest any substitutes. But what you do in the privacy of your own kitchen is, of course, your own business. If you’re not lucky enough to have hand-harvested mac nuts brought to you directly, or to go to Hawaii and get them yourself, know that this recipe only uses 1 cup of the expensive buggers.
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Salted Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Squares
Adapted from Williams Sonoma’s Essentials of Baking
Makes about eighteen 1 1/2″ squares
A few notes: This makes a relatively small batch of (very rich) squares; feel free to double the recipe and bake the bars in a 9×9″ pan. The layer of ganache turned out thicker than I had planned. None of the chocophiles who ate these minded in the slightest, but you can cut the ganache in half if you like. If you use a chocolate with lower cacao mass than the 70% called for, you may need to decrease the cream – or increase the chocolate – to end up with a firm-enough ganache. These bars get soft and gooey at room temp; for best results, store in the fridge until an hour or so before serving. The salt topping will dissolve after an hour or two, so sprinkle the salt just before serving. If I were making these to give as gifts, I would add 1/4 teaspoon of flakey salt to the caramel instead of sprinkling it on top. I so love the macadamias here that I hesitate to suggest substitutions, but all nuts go well with salt, caramel and chocolate. (Peanuts, for instance, could make these taste like a sophisticated Snickers bar…) The lemon juice in the caramel keeps the sugar from crystallizing; lacking a lemon, you can substitute a teaspoon or so of corn syrup.
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) packed light or dark brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cold, in 3/4″ chunks
3 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon strained fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup roasted macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped into halves or quarters (salted or unsalted)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3 ounces bittersweet, 70% cacao mass chocolate (see headnote), finely chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3 ounces) heavy cream
about 1/4 teaspoon flakey salt (such as Maldon), for sprinkling on top
Make the crust:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line a 9×5″ loaf pan with parchment paper or heavy-duty aluminum foil (you can make chris-crossing slings, or just shove a piece in the bottom, but be sure to cover the sides of the pan; see photo in post, above).
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Rub the butter in with your fingertips until the mixture looks like coarse meal, with no large butter chunks remaining. Press the mixture firmly and evenly into the bottom of the pan.
Bake the crust until set and golden (mine took 40 minutes, but the time may be closer to 20 in a metal pan).
While the crust bakes, make the caramel filling:
Place the water and lemon juice in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Carefully pour the sugar right in the center of the water; if any crystals get on the side of the pot, brush them down into the water. (This helps to prevent crystallization.) Use your fingers to moisten all of the sugar. Place the pot over a medium flame.
Meanwhile, place the cream in a small saucepan and heat over a low flame to a bare simmer, swirling occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. If the cream comes to a simmer before the sugar is caramelized, turn off the heat and cover the cream to prevent a skin from forming.
Cook the sugar, without touching, stirring, or otherwise disturbing it, until it turns a deep amber. You can gently tilt the pot if the caramel is darkening unevenly. When the sugar has turned amber, immediately begin to slowly pour in the hot cream. The caramel with sputter and bubble; keep adding the cream slowly, being careful not to burn yourself on the steam. When the bubbling has subsided, place the pot over a low flame and stir to dissolve any caramel that may be sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Stir in the salt and the nuts.
Pour the nutty caramel over the baked crust, and return to the oven until the caramel is bubbling almost all over, about 20 minutes.
Remove the caramelly bars and let cool to room temperature (you can stick them in the fridge to speed this up).
While the caramelly bars cool, make the ganache:
Place the chopped chocolate and butter in a small bowl. Heat the cream in a small pot to a bare simmer, swirling occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let sit for a minute to melt the chocolate. Gently whisk the ganache until smooth. Keep warm until ready to pour over the cooled caramel. (Or re-warm over a bain marie.)
When the caramelly bars are cool, pour the ganache over the caramel, tilting the pan to create a smooth, even layer. Chill the bars until completely cold and firm, about 2 hours.
Lift the parchment and bars out of the pan (you may need to pry them out with a butter knife or offset spatula) and place on a cutting board. Use a sharp chef’s knife to cut the bars into small squares, dipping the knife in hot water and wiping it dry between cuts. Just before serving, sprinkle the bars with flakey salt.
Serve the bars at cool room temperature. Store extras in the fridge, and bring to room temperature an hour or so before serving.