Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cashew Blondies with Vanilla Caramel

Caramel-cashew is one of those matches made in (food) heaven. Akin to apple-cinnamon or oatmeal-raisin, the combination of silky, sweet caramel and crunchy, salty cashews is better than the sum of its parts.

My first taste of this delectable combination was in a Culver’s. For those who grew up outside the Midwest, Culver’s is an “upscale” fast food chain known for its butterburgers, cheese curds and frozen custard. Cliché? Perhaps. Fabulous? But of course.

Mike, my step-dad and by far one of my favorite people in the world, has defaulted to this decadent combination since the day I met him. The first time we frequented Culver’s, (and, I’ll admit, every time since) I reached around my default dessert, an oversized concrete chocolate malt, and pilfered a large, creamy spoonful of his sundae.

Warm caramel flowed through the cold, creamy custard, picking up the salt crystals from the cashews and making the flavor utterly addictive. That combination has stuck with me for years and will always bring about fond memories of balmy, custard-filled summer evenings with Mike.

So here it is: a caramel-cashew sundae in bar form, heightened with aromatic vanilla and a hefty hint of salt. Miguel, these sweet, salty temptresses are all for you…the package should arrive in three to five business days.

Cashew Blondies with Vanilla Caramel

For Blondies
• 8 Tbsp butter; melted
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 1 large egg; room temperature
• 2 tsp vanilla
• ½ tsp kosher salt
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• ½ tsp baking powder
• ¾ cup salted cashews; coarsely chopped

For Caramel
• ¾ cup vanilla sugar
• Water; just enough to make a paste with sugar
• ¼ cup heavy whipping cream
• 1 tbsp butter; melted
• ¼ tsp vanilla
• Pinch of salt

Line an 8x8-inch baking dish with parchment paper allowing it to come up the sides of the pan. Butter liberally. Preheat the oven to 350˚F.

Whip together butter and sugar till lightened in color. Whisk together the egg and vanilla and add gradually to sugar-butter mixture. Make sure the liquid is fully incorporated into the batter before moving on. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt and add all at once, mixing just to combine. Stir in chopped cashews and pour mixture into prepared pan.

Make a caramel by combining vanilla sugar with water just until the sugar is hydrated and the mixture is a paste in a thick-bottomed pan. Use a wet pastry brush to wipe down the sides of the pan and avoid forming sugar crystals. Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring mixture to a boil. Regularly brush down the sides with the pastry brush and do NOT stir. As the mixture begins to color gently swirl the pan to distribute the heat evenly. Allow the caramel to cook to a medium color and remove from heat. Carefully stir in heavy cream (the mixture will bubble up). Stir in melted butter, vanilla and salt. Allow the caramel to cool slightly.

Pour caramel over top of blondie and use a sharp knife to swirl it into the batter.

Bake at 350˚F 50 – 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cover with aluminum foil halfway through baking to avoid browning the top too much.

*If you don’t have vanilla sugar handy, simply use regular granulated sugar and add a bit more vanilla extract.
*To make your own vanilla sugar simply combine granulated sugar with leftover dried vanilla beans. Continue adding sugar and vanilla to keep a ready supply of this fragrant, versatile sugar.

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