The cookie bar recipe I stole from Dorie Greenspan
Have you ever noticed that the best gifts are usually things that you never asked about or even knew you wanted? Perhaps not the most desirable gifts, but those that you use so often that your life is significantly different and maybe even better?
I want to give you one such gift: an oatmeal cookie bar that you can put in your oven in less than 10 minutes. It may seem like a different recipe, but take it seriously because it comes from the world's foremost biscuit expert, New York Times Magazine columnist “On Dessert,” five James Beard Award winner and author of 13 cookbooks, Dorie Greenspan. If you are new to Dory, you should be. And if you've ever followed a recipe closely and asked, "Should it look like this?" and "what did I do wrong?" then you are definitely not using Dorie Greenspan recipes, and you should be! Their recipes are bulletproof and tested so carefully that no details or instructions are overlooked. A Dorie Greenspan recipe always includes storage instructions, cutting and serving instructions, and appropriate ingredient substitutions. It will even go so far as to offer adjustments to recipes according to the needs of the reader, which are equivalent to whole second recipes that are hidden in the margin next to the original.
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My Oat Biscuit Bars started out as one of those adaptable recipes and appeared on page 77 of Dories Biscuits as a “Raisin Bar” with a ground beef version for the holidays. I had a pint of tinned stone fruit that I needed out of my refrigerator ASAP, and since the recipe suggests you can put store-bought ground beef in, I thought I could use the cookie dough as a container for my tinned foods too. The results were impressive: A dense, almost caramel-sweet bar with spicy, jam sections swirled around. I haven't looked back much since then. All of my leftover Halloween candy cut into pieces appeared in one iteration. I made "Trail Mix Bars" with seeds, nuts and dried fruits. Apricot and almond bars, simple oatmeal chocolate chopper - the list goes on. Here is the recipe as it appears in Dorie's book, and my adapted version below.
1⅓ cups all-purpose flour
¾ TL. Baking soda
2 sticks of unsalted butter
¾ cup of light brown sugar
½ tsp. Salt (if using coarse kosher salt make an extra pinch)
2 TEA SPOONS. vanilla
1½ cups of old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup nuts (roasted or toasted)
1 to 2 cups of filling (see note below)
NOTE: I use everything I have in the house for filling. Dry mix-ins like candy pieces (chopped up Rolos and Reese are great!), Nuts, seeds, and dried fruits work best for me, but you can use a moist filling like a fruit spread or nut butters. Be careful if you use a sweet fruit filling as the cookie dough itself is pretty sweet and can put the bars over the edge.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the butter into pieces and cream it with the brown sugar and salt in a stand mixer, bowl and hand mixer or food processor. If you're using the food processor, just pulse the mixture with as few pulses as possible while scraping the sides of the machine between pulses. Once they are smooth and fluffy, beat in the vanilla and add the flour and baking powder all at once. Try again mixing or pulsing it with the least number of strokes possible. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl as you mix or between pulses of the food processor. Once most of the flour is gone, add the oats, nuts, and dry fillings. Give it another quick mix or pulse just to incorporate. Unless you're adding moist filling, spread all of the batter evenly in a buttered baking dish (an 8x8 or 9x9 square pan is ideal). If you are using a moist filling, reserve a third of the batter. Spread the filling evenly on the lower layer of dough and lay the rest of the dough in lumps over the entire filling (see photo).
Bake in the oven for 32 minutes if using a 9x9 pan and bake for about 36 minutes if using an 8x8 pan. For pans of other sizes, all you need to do is monitor how well the bars are cooked. You want the batter to be lightly golden and puffed in the center of the bowl as well.
An addendum ...
I intended to post the recipe as detailed above, but it didn't feel right. How can I give something away if I stole it at all? I turned to Dorie Greenspan for her permission and the Queen of Cookies herself told me to give her a call.
What happened next was magical: I confessed to Dory. I told her about the changes I made to her recipe and the many bars that had come out of it, and I even told her that some fillings were too sweet and Dorie didn't yell at me or make derogatory comments . or sound disappointed at all. "I love that! That's what I want people to do!" She said before suggesting any additional variations that I could try. She mentioned the filling that was too sweet and said I should try something fresh next time Add lemon juice and coarsely chopped lemon meat to make up for the sweetness. Awesome, right? She was really excited to hear about all of my various hideous candy-filled atrocities (see below)!
In a way, Dorie's recipe is also an adaptation. She wrote it down in a notebook that she kept in the early years of their marriage, she tells me, and can't remember where she copied it from. She had changed it herself, added rum to her raisins, and made some other changes. When I heard Dory passing on this uncertain origin story, I thought my universal cookie bar recipe might be kismet. It's a cookie recipe that was born by me but created by countless others like a flawless recipe design.
That idea would likely make Dorie Greenspan laugh. To them, baking seems to be about making something your own. On the phone, she casually paraphrased Antoine Careme, the grandfather of the French pastry shop, saying that most people consider baking a rigid art, but this is really just the beginning (“The noblest of all arts is architecture and its greatest manifestation is that Art of the Confectioner ”). Just like building, once you understand the rules and how to make basic doughs, cakes, doughs, and more, you can do anything you want.
"You have to be willing to make mistakes," said Dory. "In the beginning it was very difficult for me because I never want to throw anything out." We all agreed that failure is the hardest part of baking, and it can be more common as you change recipes. Even so, Dorie prints "play around" sections in her cookbooks that encourage readers to deviate from the recipe and suggest ways to get started.
I have tested a few cookbooks with recipes and am aware of the meticulous process that recipes are written and developed. That is why I am surprised that Dorie is so willing to let others disassemble the recipes that she has carefully refined to avoid possible mistakes. But when I spoke to her, it became clear that I had been thinking the whole thing wrong. I was too fixated on baking disasters because I believed a good recipe would prevent things like that. However, I hardly believe that the best food in the world came about because chefs and bakers strictly followed the recipes they were given. Instead of a recipe being too good to change, it may be worth playing with a great recipe, even if it means the risk of failure. Following this logic, it would mean a lot to me and Dorie Greenspan if you tweaked, manipulated, and reconfigured this recipe for the biscuit bars (raisins) until it was unrecognizable this Christmas season.
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