Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cherry Coconut Shortbread Bars

 A recipe slipped out of my late grandmother’s Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook as I paged though it last week.  Hand-written on lined notebook paper, it was a recipe for cherry bars.  The letters were clear and slanted; the paper was crisp, as though grandma had written it a week ago.

Was it Grandma Eleanor’s handwriting? I wondered.  It was possible. I read the instructions and imagined her voice—cheerful, but raspy from cigarettes—guiding me though the instructions.

Sift flour, sugar.  Cut in Oleo. And press into an 11” x17” pan.

Grandma Eleanor was my father’s mother.  Her hair was bobbed and white and she wore oversized gray glasses.  I was convinced that she was Mrs. Claus and, come December, was extra cautious in her presence.   She died when I was seven, before I really knew her, but some of my fondest memories include baking cut-out cookies in her kitchen.  

  The cherry bar recipe was like a conversation she and I never had. Grandma dictated the instructions, and I visualized myself following them.  The handwriting mesmerized me, I could have looked at it for hours.  A handwritten recipe is different from letters on a computer screen or a cookbook’s printed text; it’s personal and undeniably the words of another human.  A cook communicates her personality in the way she loops her Ls and ends her words with an upward swoop.  A happy, organized woman penned this recipe, of that I was certain. I added cherry bars to the top of my must-try list, for purely sentimental reasons.

It was a strange recipe.  Grandma listed baking powder, flour, and flaked coconut as ingredients for the cherry filling. The shortbread crust called for powdered sugar.  I shrugged at the ingredients and gathered them anyway, Grandma was the expert. I followed the recipe exactly.  Well almost. The sugar I reduced by half, the maraschino cherries I replaced with Trader Joe’s Dark Morello Cherries in Light Syrup.  Instead of Oleo, I used my favorite baking fat, unsalted butter.

My apartment smelled like a bakery after I put a pan of them in the oven.  For the rest of the afternoon, I was happy indoors. 

 The next day my mother dropped by and I cut her a piece.“Mmmm. It tastes like a moist cherry shortbread,” she said, picking it up with her hands. “I want another piece.”
 I handed her the recipe and asked if the writing was Grandma’s. Mom glanced at it.

 “No, Honey, I’m sorry,” she said.  “That’s not her writing at all.”

Sometimes I’m too romantic for my own good.

Still, it is a wonderful recipe, perfect for breakfast or a late afternoon snack. The crust is a powdery pastry, the kind that clings to the sides of your mouth and begs for a glass of milk.  Laden with toasted almonds and held together with chewy coconut, it is a most satisfying treat.

Cherry Coconut Shortbread Bars
2 cups flour
½ cup powdered sugar
1 cup butter, unsalted
Preheat the oven to 350oF.  In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour and sugar.  With a pastry cutter, paddle attachment of a standing mixer, or two knives cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Press the mixture into an 11”x17” pan and bake for 10 minutes.  Be careful not to overbake the crust.  It should be underdone at this point, to allow for more baking later.

½ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup chopped cherries in light syrup
1 cup flaked coconut
¾ cup chopped, toasted almonds
Combine the dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and beat in the eggs.  Fold in the cherries, coconut and nuts.  Spread over the half-baked dough and bake for 30-40 minutes at 350oF.  Serve plain or topped with sweetened whipped cream.

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