I have an on-going love affair with the family of burnt sugar glory. For most other things in life, there are seasons - a time to laugh, a time for chocolate, a time to harvest, and a time for strawberries. But caramel? Butterscotch? They are always in season for me.
Caramel and I have a long, happy history together, you see. When I was in elementary school, my Dad would bring home Brach's candy from the bulk section of the grocery store in scrunchy plastic bags. He's partial to the sugared fruit slices and spicy cinnamon bears, but when he left the bag on his desk to mow the lawn or work on the computer (when you have dial-up in the early 90s, that's quite a large amount of time to leave that unassuming bag of goodness unattended), I always picked around the other candies to get to the Milk Maid caramels.
They were my absolute favorite - rich and creamy, chewy and rich, stuffed with some magical cream filling in flavors like maple, raspberry, orange, vanilla and my favorite, butter rum in the yellow, metallic wrapper. The candies were always dented up a bit, and sometimes you had to scrape the last bits of caramel off with the back of your teeth, but it was always a treat when he brought them home, although not that part where I left the wrappers in the bag and he'd huff and puff over who ate all his candy!?
But then there's butterscotch, the close relative to caramel, slightly less bitter in flavor and just as sweet, with a touch of booze on its breath, that slightly drunk uncle at Christmastime who everyone chuckles at when he gets a little too loud. For me, butterscotch was all about the pudding. We used to go a buffet restaurant called Bob's Big Boy and it had a a smiling, raven-haired chubby kid perched high on top the building wearing red and white checkered overalls. Everytime we drove past it, my sister would yell out from her carseat, "It's big boy Bob!"
Well, whatever his name was, Big Boy Bob served up three kinds of pudding on the dessert buffet: chocolate, vanilla and butterscotch. I would put a few fried shrimp onto my plate and fill up the rest of the space with gobs of pudding, pretend not to see my mother demanding I pick a vegetable, and go to town on my hodge-podge dinner.
These bars do alright for themselves - the shortbread crust is my new favorite, made with brown sugar instead of white, and for once it easily presses into the pan instead of that constantly fussy rolling and picking and pressing of a classic shortbread. A quick butterscotch is melted together and despite the use of packaged chips, something happens when the heat melts them down, they take on that delicious boozy-burn flavor like a good swig of Bailey's, and the heaps of salted cashews on top make for a good, crunchy contrast to the chewy centers. Yes, you need these.
These are plenty rich, so you can afford to only eat one of two of these little smackerals and be completed satisfied. Promise.
Butterscotch Cashew Bars
Adapted from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book
1/2 pound (2 sticks, or 1 cup) butter
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
11 ounces butterscotch chips
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon water
2 cups roasted salted whole cashews
Preheat oven to 350°. Spray a 13 x 9 pan with cooking spray. Using two sheets of parchment paper, line the pan’s width and length, creating a parchment “sling.” Spray parchment paper with cooking spray.
Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter, brown sugar, and salt for 1 to 1 & 1/2 minutes. Decrease mixer speed to low and add the flour. Mix just until combined. Lightly press dough evenly into the prepared pan. Poke holes in the dough with a fork. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the crust is a golden color. Remove to wire rack to cool.
In a heavy saucepan over low heat, stir together butterscotch chips, corn syrup, and water. Stir until mixture comes to a simmer and butterscotch chips are melted. Pour over crust.
Sprinkle cashews over the butterscotch caramel. Bake for 5 more minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack. After cooling, remove from pan and use a very sharp knife to cut into bars.