Failure's important. I'm pretty sure of that.
Many smart people have said lots of neat stuff about why. I'm pretty sure of that, too. Were my brain not quite so fuzzy with flour, and my fingers a little less butter-slick, I'd look them up, cite proper sources.
As it is, I can tell you Neil Gaiman said so, and since two of the best books I've read this year were written by him, I trust him. (Aside: If you need a great read for a boy, or a human, 8 and up? The Graveyard Book. Utterly original, absolutely fantastic. And if you know anyone who likes good stories, or smiling, or laughing, or squirting drinks uncontrollably through their nose? Fortunately, the Milk. All ages, all kinds. Seriously. Just buy ten.)
Also, I can tell you failure's a given, at least around here, around this time of year.
Every year, cookies fail. It's part of the process, guaranteed, as routine as sprinkles stuck to my socks. Botched batches are so predictable, I simply expect it, budget for it. It's sort of Pareto meets How the Cookie Crumbles: 80% (if I'm lucky) succeed, and the other 20%? Woe unto them.
What keeps it exciting is that I never know which cookies will fail, or when, or how many, or how, exactly. (I like to live dangerously.)
Though to judge by this year, it's probably a red flag if "paintbrush" or "pastry tube" appear in the recipe.
Especially if they're in the same recipe.
In my defense, I've made these clever peppermint meringues a half-dozen times, with nary a hitch. Though I probably used the called-for extract, not (insert head-slap) meringue-curdling oil. And I likely caught that the specified star tip would yield better points than the plain circle. And since my stripes in years past were crisp, clear and lovely, I'll bet my red gel wasn't crusty and old and resurrected unsuccessfully with water. And surely, surely, I didn't leave them in the oven to dry overnight, only to forget them. Then preheat the oven. For pizza. For an hour. At 500 fiery degrees.
Wondering all the while, what in the dickens is that SMELL?
First fail. Feels kinda good, actually. Not unlike a new car's first ding. It's good to get the inevitable behind you. Softens you for future blows.
(Oo! Ooh!! There's a Why! Failure's good because it re-calibrates, ratchets down expectations, humbles our cute foolish penchant for perfect.)
And future blows, there were. Some were small, grabbing white sugar instead of brown, say, in a batch of gingerbread shorties. They were still lovely, if a bit anemic, but then so am I, so I can't really judge. And when five-year-old hands are involved in the measuring and mixing and spice-sniffing and nutmeg-grating and batter-licking, well. There are more, better things to attend to than the minor matter of sugar color.
(There's another. Priorities. Failure clarifies what's important, what's piffle.)
There were all the usual so-so auditions, the new-to-us cookies we try out each year. Most fail. Sometimes all. Que sera. I expect those fails. It takes legions to flush out the rare great. And even the fails never fail to teach me something, if only confirming what I already knew. Eggs don't ever belong in shortbread. Lemon zest ought never be measured in teaspoons. If dough looks like it's going to be dry, crumbly and miserable, it is going to be dry, crumbly and miserable. As will the finished cookie. As will you, at least the miserable bit.
(See, now? There's another. Failure reminds that success has so little to do with results, so much more with the process. It's that old zen journey thing. I'm terribly un-zen. Though I do meditate often over dough's finer points.)
Then, there were the heartbreakers. They happen each year, always with cookies I know and hold dear and have no excuse flubbing. I get casual. Sloppy. Distracted. Smug. Complacent. Just plain lazy. This year, I guess I got all of the above, for how else to explain those incinerated drei augen?
I mean, burning cookies is a rookie mistake, one I try never, ever to make. I live by the timer, attend to the infernal beeps, rarely leave the kitchen if anything's in the oven. I know all too well cookies wait for no woman. I rarely, rarely burn a batch.
But when I do? I go big or go home. I burn the ones that take considerably longer, that require more futzing, that demand more patience, and time, and attention, than any other. When I do, I burn the brussels sprouts of cookies. And when I do, I burn two trays at once, because I always bake two trays at once.
I do it again.
Because when your oven is fifty degrees too hot, and your timer set to ten minutes too long, no amount of minding beeps and bake times will save those labored-over little lovelies from charcoal. Probably next time I should read the directions. My directions. I deserve myself.
(Ooh! Oooh! There's another failure outtake! Don't be stupid.)
But the tree went up, and has (thus far) stayed up, an accomplishment I appreciate each year. And the stockings were hung by the chimney with care. And Mamo's corn husk dolls are back in action. And the Christmas stories are up and in play. And no one wiped out on the still-falling snow. And unlike last year, no broken bones!! I'd trade every last cookie for that there last triumph.
And I didn't burn the sugar cookies, as so often happens. And I didn't run out of cardamom, which would be a code red. And I didn't botch the brittle, which is saying something, as my track record is a solid 50/50. (They don't call that elusive candy stage hard ball for no reason.) And I didn't drop the tin of thumpbrints. I have dropped the tin of thumbprints before. I wish never to drop said tin, again.
Did you catch that?
Finally, finally, we can talk pecan bars.
I've been wanting to talk these pecan bars for years, because these might just be my most favorite cookie. I specify "these" because pecan bars, as a class, aren't at all my thing. Most such bars are close cousins of pecan pie, which—and forgive me, please, if you're a fan—I find achingly sweet and and unbearably cloying and generally just completely awful. (Sorry!) These pecan bars are, I guess, still relations. Insofar as I'm kin to an anteater, say.
These pecan bars evolved from the pages of Ina Garten's very first book, and to my mind, her best. The original Barefoot Contessa Cookbook was a wonder for its time, a graphically clean, visually bright, well-edited collection of big, bold, flavor-forward food. Our go-to brownies, still the best I've ever eaten, hail from my torn, tattered, fourteen-year-old copy. So do these bars. They are a revelation.
They begin, in typical Ina style, with a shortbread base to beat all. Built on the back of five sticks (!) of butter, this base is a base to behold. Unlike most bars, which work miserly dustings of flour and butter into threadbare crust, this is no perfunctory platform. Half an inch in the valleys, higher still in the mountains, this base goes places I didn't know shortbread could go.
Like all great shortbread, it possesses that paradoxical light rich that melts on the tongue and crumbles on the tooth and makes one wonder after butter and flour's higher powers. But unlike shortbread baked up solo, this base, first blind-baked, then buried alive in caramel, takes on a dense velvet solemnity that brings to mind cashmere and clouds and the question, Can man live on pecan bar base alone?
Why, yes, and handsomely, is the answer. But don't. Because then you would miss the sublime strata of lovely that sits thickly atop.
Because while your slab is baking to just-set, you are stirring a pot of butter, brown sugar, honey, and orange zest into something splendid. It's not a true caramel—no burnt sugar, here—but a quick melt-and-boil-3-minutes affair, which despite its ease, acts in the end like the gorgeous, deeply flavored, well-structured real deal. Stir in the better part of two pounds of pecans, pour over slab, and bake a bit longer. The hardest part, truly, is the four-hour wait that the bars require (don't skip it) to chill and set. Sit on your hands. The eating is easy.
The bar that comes out of the oven and fridge is entirely unlike the bar that went in. In the oven, the loose caramel bubbles, and thickens, and settles into a tender soft perfect. Can you see it, just there? The way that it holds? Holds the nuts, holds a thread, yet yields to the tooth? Inflected with orange, gently rippled with salt, it is sweet but not achingly. Spot-on. Sublime.
And then, as if that weren't enough, the top pecan layer does something neat. As the caramel reduces, it leaves the uppermost sheaf of pecans glossed and exposed. Can you see that, there? The way that they bake into their own brittle glory, shattery and toasty and a slam-dunk contrast to their squidge-mortared bretheren, below?
It's a nice cookie.
So why have I held out? Because for all its insane loveliness, it had one teeny-tiny, intractable issue: as written, roughly three cups' excess filling. Every year, I would make pecan bars, rejoice in their glory, then turn around and without passing go, stick my head in the oven. No, it wasn't that bad, but every batch did result in an evening spent chiseling burnt caramel from my oven floor. And racks. And sheet pan. And kitchen floor. And oven drawer. And still, the next week's cookies tasted only of old cigarettes.
It was just ghastly. A pretty huge fail.
I would chalk it up to user error (if you've made it this far, you know I am prone), except the results were identical each time. And there were at least four dozen each times. Really, the only user error was in not correcting the recipe sooner. I suspect it was a simple case of a restaurant trying (and failing) to scale down a recipe properly. As it is, this recipe yields a half-sheet pan of bars, which tops five pounds, yields fifty-plus bars, and will feed your friends, family, co-workers and neighbors, and well. This is good. You'll want crowds to save yourself from inhaling the whole tray, and the crowds will want you since you're sharing nirvana. Still, nirvana's nicer if the smoke alarm isn't bellowing.
So this year, finally, I righted the wrongs, nipped here, tweaked there, re-wrote the recipe, and lo! Hark these lovely little angels! I've baked three batches, with nary a smoke signal. People, we have pecan bars without drama. For your sake and mine, I am beyond pleased. Though in my experience, there's one last hitch: despite their extravagant yield, these fail to stick around very long at all. Maybe you can get back to me on that one?
Sublime Pecan Bars
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, by Ina Garten
Please note these need to chill at least 4 hours before cutting
Yield: 50-1 1/2" x 3" bars
If the amounts seem a little wonky, trust me. This fills the pressed crust exactly. Speaking of which: note the crust pressing step, below, which both helps attain that excellent base texture, and makes room for the filling, above.
Ina suggests a yield of 20. I can't imagine anything less than 50 (these are rich), and often cut bars half that size, for 100 - 1" squares. Chilled and covered, these keep beautifully for a week.
1 1/4 pounds (5 sticks) salted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
14 ounces salted butter (3 1/2 sticks)
3/4 cup honey
2 1/2 cups dark brown sugar, packed
zest of 3 large oranges (organic, if possible)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 pound 12 ounces (8 cups) pecan halves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a half-sheet pan (12 x 18 x 1") with parchment.
For the crust, place butter, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and cream until light, approximately 3 minutes. Scrape sides, add vanilla, and beat to combine. Scrape sides, add flour, and on slowest setting, beat to combine, 30-60 seconds. Drop dough onto lined baking sheet, roughly distributing to cover. Press dough evenly across bottom and up sides of pan, roughly 1/2" deep. The dough is very soft and user-friendly; I use the heels of my hands and my fingertips to work it easily into place. Some uneveness is fine; it will disappear under the filling. Bake for 15 minutes, until the crust is set and opaque, but not browned. Remove from oven, and using a measuring cup or the back of a large spoon, press down crust to compress, leaving a 1/2" rim around edges. Set aside to cool.
For the topping, combine the butter, honey, brown sugar, orange zest and salt in a heavy saucepan, large enough to eventually accommodate the pecans. Cook over medium heat until the butter is melted, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Raise heat and boil for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, add cream and pecans, and stir to thoroughly combine. Pour topping evenly over prepared crust, working from left to right to distribute nuts and caramel. If your floors are as uneven as mine, and caramel pools at one end, nudge nuts about with a spoon a bit, to even out. Bake bars for 25-30 minutes, until the filling bubbles gently all the way to the center, and you're about ready to climb inside your oven.
Remove from oven, and allow to cool completely, at least 4 hours or overnight, before slicing. (A refrigerator or cool garage will expedite things slightly, though these are fine left at room temperature.) When cool, cut bars into desired size. These are fantastically rich; we aim for 1" x 3" bars. Bars keep beautifully, refrigerated and sealed, for 5-7 days.