Kelly at work is vegan, cousin Jerry has gone gluten-free, and your neighbor Ava is pescatarian and eats dairy, but not eggs. Even you passed on last evening’s spaghetti carbonara in an attempt to eat more heart-healthy. It’s hard to keep up with everyone’s diet these days, and it can be even more difficult to accommodate each and every one of them at the table — especially during the holidays.
I say it can be difficult, because it doesn’t have to be. All you need is a solid army of recipes that you can employ when the feting gets tough. And if some of them are modifiable, depending on whatever you’re not serving that particular evening, even better.
That’s where my Endlessly Adaptable Cookie Bars come in. For one, they’re vegan, which gives you a leg up on one particular “what am I going to serve” conundrum. I replaced butter with refined coconut oil (it creams up the same way and is essentially flavorless), while eggs are superfluous for our cookie purposes. To keep these bars from venturing into shortbread territory, however, you’ll find a generous amount of dark brown sugar. The molasses-rich sweetener not only works to keep the bar moist and with a bit of chew, but also imparts deep notes of caramel and toffee. A few splashes of non-dairy milk also help to smooth the whole batter together and create a more tender texture in the end.
As for the adaptable part, you can fold in and top these bars with whatever chocolate, nut, dried fruit — you name it — you have on hand or in my case, whatever candy you’re craving at the moment. (Anyone else love those salted dark-chocolate-covered almonds at the store?) But the versatility doesn’t stop there. Go beyond the mix-ins and play around with the flour itself. Loaded with fiber and nutrients, alternative grains such as spelt, rye and kamut can add a wholesome twist as well as complexity.
Take my spiced spelt variation: Buttery pecans bring out the nuttiness of the flour, while warm baking spices bring out its sweetness. Now, you have an altogether different bar that’s heartier, packed with interesting flavor and texture, and is absolutely delectable. Keep a 50:50 ratio of all-purpose to alternative flour, and you’ll have all sorts of fun.
And don’t think I forgot the gluten-free Jerrys of the world. To keep it simple, I turned to a store-bought blend — specifically one with xanthan gum (it works as a binding agent here). Substitute an equal weight of the blend for regular flour; amp up your sugar, flavorings and leavening agents; and give the dough a rest to allow the starches to hydrate and soften. Thirty minutes in the oven, and you’ve got yourself a dessert that now the whole gang can eat.
I get it: Catering to other people’s dietary needs isn’t always easy or ideal, but isn’t that what the holidays are all about? A time to gather together despite and because of our differences — even if that difference is as simple as what we put in our bodies. So, bake these cookie bars, not only because they’re quick, easy and endlessly adaptable, but more importantly, because they’re inclusive. What more can you ask of a cookie than bringing comfort and joy to all those around you, one bite at a time?
2cups(280 grams) all-purpose flour
1cup(8 ounces) refined coconut oil, room temperature but solid (may substitute vegetable shortening)
1⁄2cuppacked dark brown sugar
2tablespoonsalmond milk (may substitute another non-dairy milk)
1cupvegan dark chocolate chips or chunks, plus more for topping
1⁄2cupunsalted almonds, toasted and chopped, plus more for topping
Flaky sea salt, for topping
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use cooking oil spray to grease a 9-by-13-inch metal baking pan and line it with parchment paper, allowing for a bit of overhang.
Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.
Combine the coconut oil and both sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat for about 3 minutes on medium speed until light, fluffy, and smooth. Stop to scrape the sides of the bowl, then add the vanilla extract and almond milk, beating on medium speed until incorporated.
Reduce the mixer speed to low; add the flour mixture in two additions, stopping to scrape down the sides and mixing just until the dry ingredients are completely incorporated. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the dark chocolate and almonds.
Scrape the dough into the baking dish, then use the palm of your hand to press the dough into an even layer, without compressing it too much. Sprinkle with more chocolate and almonds on top and finish with a sprinkle of flaky sea salt. Bake (middle rack) for about 30 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned and the middle looks a tiny bit puffed and under-baked.
While the cookie slab is still warm, use a sharp knife to score cuts for the 32 pieces. Cool for about 15 minutes before using the parchment paper to lift them to a rack. Discard the parchment and complete cutting the slab into 32 bars.
VARIATIONS: To make Spiced Pecan Spelt Bars, swap out 1 cup all-purpose flour for 1 cup spelt flour and increase salt to 1 teaspoon. Whisk 1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, and 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg in with the flour. Omit flaky sea salt and switch out dark chocolate and almonds for equal amount pecans, sprinkling some on top before baking.
To make Gluten-Free Coconut and Date Bars, swap out the 2 cups of all-purpose flour for 1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons gluten-free flour blend and whisk it with baking powder (reduced to 3/4 teaspoon), salt (increased to 1 teaspoon), and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Use melted coconut oil instead of solid and whisk it with the sugars (dark brown sugar increased to 3/4 cup), vanilla (increased to 4 teaspoons), and almond milk until a smooth paste is formed. Fold in dry ingredients, 1 cup unsweetened coconut shreds and 1/2 cup chopped semi-dry dates (such as Deglet Noor). Allow the dough to sit for 30 minutes before transferring to pan.
From Seattle baker Polina Chesnakova.
Tested by Helen Horton and Bonnie S. Benwick; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 140; Total Fat: 9 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 20 mg; Carbohydrates: 14 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 7 g; Protein: 2 g.