Upscale bar cookies for the holidays

chocolate cherry bars

Homey chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies are all very well for the rest of the year.  The holidays, though, cry out for something spectacular.

It takes an over-the-top cookie like these chocolate cherry hazelnut bars to stand out among the fanciful sugar cutouts, elaborate spritz and spicy gingerbread men found on platters at every neighborhood party and office pot luck this time of year.

I usually try out a new cookie every year during the holidays, but this recipe has become a standard.  It’s always a hit on the cookie platter and it makes great gifts, too.  The fact that it takes only minutes to pull together only adds to its charm.

The generous layer of high quality chocolate atop a crunchy cocoa-dusted crust makes a truly decadent offering.  I use the best bittersweet and milk chocolate I can find–Valrhona when I can find it at a good price. What really sets these cookies apart from the familiar 7-layer bar recipe  found on  the back of cans of sweetened condensed milk, though, is the grown-up flavors of tart dried cherries and toasted hazelnuts.

The only problem is they go fast, even though they’re incredibly rich.  So slice the bars smaller if you’re expecting a crowd.

Or set aside a few for yourself.  The cook deserves a treat, too.

Makes 3 dozen

2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 16 crackers)
½ cup good quality cocoa
½ cup sugar
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup ground hazelnuts
¾ cup dried sour cherries
2 3.5-ounce bars bittersweet chocolate, broken into 1/4-inch pieces
1 3/5-ounce bar milk chocolate, broken into 1/4 inch pieces
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted lightly and coarsely chopped
1¼ cups (14-ounce can) sweetened condensed milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil, leaving a tail at each end to serve as handles so bars can be easily removed from pan after baking.  In a small bowl, mix graham cracker crumbs, cocoa and sugar.  Stir in melted butter until well blended.  Press crumbs evenly into bottom of prepared pan.

Spread ground hazelnuts evenly over surface of crumbs.  Top with an even layer of cherries, then a layer each of the bittersweet and milk chocolate.  Scatter toasted, chopped hazelnuts over all.  Drizzle sweetened condensed milk over the layered ingredients, being careful to moisten every section of the cookie base.

Bake 30-40 minutes, until milk topping begins to turn a pale golden brown.  Remove from oven and cool in pan on wire rack.  When cooling is complete, carefully left foil from pan and transfer bars to cutting surface.  With sharp knife, cut lengthwise into 4 strips and crosswise into 9 rows.

Store in airtight container or freeze until ready to serve.

Aleta Watson

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