Baked Sunday Mornings: Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars

In my experience, coconut is very divisive -- people either love it or hate it and there are few who are neutral on the subject. Thankfully, I'm in the coconut-loving camp, so I was thrilled that this week's recipe for Baked Sunday Mornings is "Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars." Described as a tribute to the Girl Scout Samoa cookie, these bars have a layer of shortbread topped with coconut caramel, more toasted coconut, and chocolate. This is my kind of cookie!

To make the shortbread crust, you cream together softened butter and sugar, and add vanilla, flour, and salt. You are supposed to press this mixture into the bottom of a parchment-lined pan using floured hands, but I had a lot of problems with this step because the dough was very sticky and soft. I had to break out a rolling pin to make it work; I rolled it directly onto the sheet of parchment I had folded to fit inside the pan and sandwiched another piece of parchment on top to avoid sticking. I docked the crust with a fork and baked it until golden.

Making the caramel took some time and I thought that the recipe directions could have been clearer. You heat corn syrup, sugar, brown sugar, and water in a pan, and stir gently until the sugar dissolves. Then you stop stirring and heat the mixture to 240-245 degrees. I was confused about the directions because recipe first says to heat the mixture to 240-245 and then says that once the sugar mixture turns amber, you should take it off the heat and stir in butter and a warmed mixture of heavy cream and sweetened condensed milk. However, the mixture turned dark amber long before it reached 240 degrees, so I just add the butter, cream, and condensed milk when the mixture was almost 245 degrees, instead of adding them when the mixture turned amber. Once you incorporate these other ingredients, you are supposed to place the pan back over medium heat and bring the mixture back up to 245-250 degrees.

I had the pan over medium heat and it refused to go above 225 degrees. I decided I had to just raise the heat to medium-high, and even after I did that, it seemed to take forever to get to the 245-250 degree range. But once it was finally there, I added vanilla and folded in some toasted sweetened coconut, poured the caramel over the cooled shortbread crust, and sprinkled more toasted coconut on top.

I cooled the bars and put them in the fridge overnight. The following morning, I tried to cut them straight out of the fridge and the caramel layer was pretty hard. I managed to cut through it by patiently rocking a chef's knife back and forth, but the shortbread layer was still quite cold and crumbly; a lot of the shortbread edges broke off. Unfortunately, I was in a rush and didn't have time to wait for these to warm up completely before cutting them, but I did notice that the warmer these bars got, the easier and cleaner the cuts.

After I cut the bars, I spread a bit of melted bittersweet chocolate on one end of each bar and briefly put the bars back in the fridge to set the chocolate. The cookbook directs you to dip half of each bar in chocolate, but that seemed like it would be a lot messier than just spreading some on the top.

The recipe says that these bars should be stored in the refrigerator and can be served chilled or at room temperature. I found that they were impossible to eat cold because the caramel was too hard. However, after a short time out of the fridge or at room temperature, the caramel was perfect -- creamy, luscious, chewy, buttery. The shortbread, while actually very tasty, was almost completely overshadowed by the caramel; the shortbread layer and the caramel layers were the same thickness. The texture of the toasted coconut was fantastic, and while the chocolate was nice, I don't actually think it was necessary -- the halves of the bars unadorned with chocolate were still incredibly delicious and satisfying.

Coconut fans, rejoice -- these bars are fantastic, and if your friends are in the coconut-hating crowd, make them anyway... that just means more for you!

Recipe: "Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars" from Baked Elements: Our 10 Favorite Ingredients, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. Recipe available here at Baked Sunday Mornings.

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Anonymous said…
Awesome photo! I noticed the cutting was better when they warmed up a bit, too, but I got excited and just kept on choppin'. ;)
SandraM said…
That is a lovely pic of your bars. They look really good. I too had a hard time getting the caramel back up to the specified heat for the second time. And I also found the bars easier to cut and eat once out of the fridge for a little while.
Anonymous said…
Your bars are gorgeous! Most of us went with the 'drizzle' motif, and I like the dipping/spreading look a lot too-- I might try that next time. It sounds like a lot of us had issues with the crumbly shortbread, chewy caramel, and temperature. It's great to hear how things went for all the other bakers each week! :)