Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! What’s a Hallmark holiday without a little sugar? Am I right? Today I’ve got an especially sweet treat for you that has been taste tested my more people than many of my recipes are. And you know what? Every single person loved them. The funny thing is that as the first taste tester, I wasn’t sure what to think of them. I’m not a huge sweets person and my first impression was that they were too rich. And they are definitely, definitely rich. But I was reassured when people in my office and friends who visited my apartment in recent days all agreed – this recipe is definitely a keeper.
I often get inspiration for recipes from an unsuspecting source – words. Maybe it’s because I have often used written and/or spoken words in my work, but I often start dreaming of a recipe with what I would call it. For this, I started with salted. And what came next? Caramel. And then I was thinking of some salted chocolate cashews my friend brought over to my apartment on day that I couldn’t stop eating with red wine. So I ended up with salted + caramel + cashew + chocolate… and how was I going to put that together? Well – on a bar! That’s like a cookie?
Well that’s exactly what I ended up with. And after I learned to eat it in much smaller quantities than I originally tried, I fell in love. Just like all my other taste testers. I think what makes these so special is the whole combination of flavors – starting with the salt. It gives your tastebuds a little surprise in with all that sweet. For this particular recipe, I wanted to use a “fancy” salt – one where the salt crystals were big enough that they really sat on your tongue but weren’t too overpowering. Luckily, there’s this great little shop near my office called the Filling Station. They literally have every kind of salt, olive oil, etc. that you could want. There’s truffle salts, pink salts, lime salts, you name it – they have it. I picked out a fleur de sel which is pretty much a basic fancy salt. And I confirmed with the woman who worked there that this was the salt to use for what I was dreaming up.
For the caramel, I need to explore outside my own knowledge. I really had no idea where to even begin with vegan caramel because I’d never even made non-vegan caramel. The closest I got was eating pre-packaged caramel, which I think we can all agree isn’t very close at all. I found this amazing recipe from Blissful Basil and decided if I was messing around with all the other ingredients, I’d at least make sure the caramel was spot on. And you know what? It was!
It starts with a base of almond butter, maple syrup, and coconut oil. I added a bit of Earth Balance vegan margarine for a little more buttery flavor. At the end, I added in roasted salted cashews so they were nice and coated with the sauce – and I have to say, it was such a simple recipe I wish I had thought of it myself! Who knew that all these random ingredients added up to caramel?
The whole dessert was really simple to make, as long as you have some patience. The crust needs to be made and baked and cooled slightly. Then the caramel needs to cool and harden (probably the longest part), then you need to melt the chocolate to top – and add in salt. All in all, it takes a few hours. But the good part is that most of those hours are just you hanging out on the couch or getting a manicure.
If you start now, you’ll definitely have bars by your big date tonight. I promise. And if you’re in a real big hurry – and want to cut down on all the richness – you could even skip the chocolate topping. I found that after I froze a few bars (I wanted to see how they kept) that the chocolate easily came off the caramel. So I ate a few without chocolate. And could barely contain myself. See? We’re flexible around here. You do whatever will please you and your sweetheart. Or your coworkers.
This recipe makes a big batch (I used a lasagna pan for it – which is 9×13!) But my experiment for freezing a few in a mason jar turned out really well. Or eat them all in one sitting if you’ve got a serious sweet tooth. Honestly, now that I’ve got that whole jar of fleur de sel, I can’t wait to see what other salty sweet treats I can come up with!
Salted Caramel Cashew Chocolate Cookie Bars
What You’ll Need for the Base:
- 2 cups all-purpose gluten-free flour
- 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel
- 3/4 cup Earth Balance, or other vegan margarine
- 1 cup unrefined sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
What You’ll Need for the Caramel & Topping:
- 1 cup pure maple syrup
- 3/4 cup unsalted almond butter
- 2/3 cup coconut oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons Earth Balance, or other vegan margarine
- 2 cups whole salted cashews
- 14 ounces dark chocolate
- 1 teaspoon fleur de sel (for topping)
What You’ll Do:
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with tin foil. Spray a little oil on the tin foil for extra non-stickiness.
- Start with the base. With a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together until they’re nice and creamy. Add the vanilla extract and beat until incorporated.
- In a separate bowl, stir the dry ingredients together – the xanthan gum, flour, baking powder and salt. Then slowly add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar, making sure to stop periodically and wipe down the sides of the bowl.
- When the dough is sticking together and becoming somewhat difficult to mix with the hand mixer, it’s ready to go into the pan!
- Press the dough evenly throughout the pan using a spatula and/or your fingers.
- Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
- Set aside/refrigerate to cool (about 45 minutes to 1 hour)
- Next, start on the caramel. Add all the ingredients (except for the cashews – and the chocolate and salt – we’ll get to those later) into a saucepan over medium high heat. Stir until everything is melted and smells like delicious caramel. (about 5 minutes)
- Then add the cashews and remove from heat. The mixture will seem a bit runny, but don’t worry, once it’s cooled it will firm right up.
- Pour the cashew and caramel mixture over the cookie base and refrigerate to cool. (about 3 hours)
- When the caramel cashew mix is firm and cool, start on the chocolate topping. Place the chocolate in a sauce pan over medium heat (or microwave if you’re feeling lazy) until it’s melted down.
- Pour the chocolate over the caramel and then top with 3/4 teaspoon of your 1 teaspoon fleur de sel.
- Refrigerate until cool and hardened (about 45 minutes to 1 hour)
- Sprinkle remaining 1/4 teaspoon fleur de sel on top for that crystals on top look. Cut and serve!
- Keep leftovers refrigerated, but I personally liked taking them out of the fridge and letting them get to room temperature before eating. They were gooeyer that way. Enjoy!