Gooey Caramel Butter Bars

I don't know about you but Kraft caramels bring back vivid childhood memories of Halloween for me. Yes, the taste was memorable but even more so was the impossible-to-open challenge of trying to unwrap them without leaving any of the plastic stuck within the deep hard grooves of the little candy, only to be found as a slippery choking hazard in your mouth a few moments later. And you couldn't even try to do it quietly and surreptitiously under your desk during class... the crinkly crackliness would bust you each and every time. But always worth the wait and effort, once the hard caramel softened to a rich creaminess and kept your mouth busy for several happy minutes. None of the cheap no-name versions could ever compete with the real thing... throw them away with all the other Halloween knockoffs and just keep the Kraft originals. Unfortunately, during my teens I discovered the calorie count of one caramel and that pretty much ended my Kraft-caramel love affair for several years. Okay, decades.

In the years since my kidhood, some bright pip at Kraft has obviously perfected the technology of caramel-making because when I bought a couple of bags recently for this recipe, I found that not only do the caramels now keep their perfect cube shape and are instantly soft, but the plastic also falls away easily like a second skin, no problemo. No more working so hard to get your final reward. Instant gratification. Unfortunately. So when I thought I was delegating the hard task of unwrapping 50 of these suckers to Q while he was watching TV on the couch, he had them done within mere seconds (and luckily could be trusted not to scoff down half the bunch since he's back in training for some upcoming godforsaken hard biking event).

Now, fair warning: even though I'm loving Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey, I've quickly learned that most of the recipes in this cookbook list a pound (!) of butter as one of their first ingredients, and this one also needs 50 caramels to work its magic, so it's definitely one of those eat-some-give-most-away desserts and you'll make your friends, extended family or neighbours happy in the process. I decided to skip using the optional rum since kiddies would be eating these and in my experience they can be totally turned off by the whiff of the addition of any liquor... but added the pecans and they really added crunch and texture to the bars. Definitely worthwhile but your personal choice. If you're a shortbread lover, these will blow your socks off.

Gooey Caramel Butter Bars
from Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey, by Jill O'Connor

makes 15 large or 30 small bars

For the crust

1 lb unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups icing sugar, sifted
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp salt
4 cups unbleached all purpose flour

For the filling
1 bag (14 oz) caramel candies, about 50 of them, unwrapped
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 to 2 tbsp dark rum (optional)
pinch of salt

1 cup pecans, walnuts or cashews (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter with both sugars. Beat together on medium speed until creamy. Add vanilla and salt, and then sift in the flour and beat on low speed until a soft dough forms.

Butter a 9 inch by 13 inch pan and then press one-third of the dough evenly into the pan to form a bottom crust. Take the remaining two-thirds of the dough, pat it into a disk and wrap with plastic wrap. Set aside in the fridge for 30 mins.

Pop the crust into the oven for 20 to 25 mins, until golden brown. Remove and let cool.

In the meantime, place the caramels, cream, vanilla, rum (if using) and salt in a microwaveable bowl and microwave on high for 1 min. Remove and stir; continue doing this in 30-second intervals, stirring in between until smooth. Sprinkle the nuts over the cooled crust, pour the caramel mixture on top and spread evenly, then crumble the chilled shortbread on top. Return to the oven and bake until the filling is bubbly and the topping is firm and golden brown, about 30 minutes.

When cooled, cut evenly into 15 large squares or cut squares diagonally into 30 triangles.

Keep them tightly wrapped, at room temperature, and they'll be good for up to one week.