The Recipe: An chewy almost-blondie molasses and spice bar with bursts of juicy cranberry, topped with a scattering of sugar "snow". No mixer required, just a whisk and a spatula! A natural choice for Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season.
The Conversation: My two-decade search for a Whole Foods recipe for fresh cranberry bars, like chasing a slippery memory, one sweet-tart turn after another.
"Let's check out that new natural foods store," suggested my dear friend Lisa. So off we trekked to Lower Greenville Avenue in Dallas to check out a new place getting some buzz, a place called "Whole Foods".
Yeah. That Whole Foods. THE Whole Foods albeit definitely not the urbane glitzy-slick Whole Foods we know today. The store was small, the floors dusty, its few aisles stocked with unfamiliar ingredients like quinoa, millet and brown rice. Our checkout person was downright scary – think tattoos, studs and spikey hair when this was not the least bit commonplace – so scary that Lisa's toddler daughter Kerrin burst into tears.
So yeah, this was a long while ago, the 1980s. Before I moved to St. Louis; before I started writing about food; before Lisa, too, became a food blogger at My Own Sweet Thyme; before little Kerrin grew up to become an engineer and competitive body builder; and especially before Whole Foods the natural-foods upstart became Whole Foods the mega-chain.
A bit later, Whole Foods built a store near my house in Dallas, an early version of the stores we know today, it fast became my go-to grocery store. Back then, Whole Foods prices were a little higher but not in the "Whole Paycheck" range.
Every trip, I stopped by the bakery for a fresh cranberry bar, soft but chewy, ripe with molasses and spices and sour bursts of fresh cranberry. My kinda heaven.
When I moved to St. Louis, Whole Foods hadn't opened here yet. I missed my cranberry bars! I wrote to the company. I called the company. I called "my store" on Coit Road in Dallas. I wrote to the Bon Appetit "You Asked For It" column. (Interesting, isn't it, that I have written that same kind of column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for nearly four years now.)
I went back to the store in person. Oh No! No more cranberry bars!
Over the years, I tried a few recipes, none really worked.
Three years ago, I got serious about replicating Whole Foods' fresh cranberry bar. It turned out to be quite the odyssey, if only because it's been more than two decades since I've actually tasted one!
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 13 tries. My Fresh Cranberry Bars aren't an "exact" match of my slippery memory of the original. But I love these so much, each of the last few tweaks brought only small improvements on what I think you'll find to be a wonderful cranberry bar.
Chewiness, especially on the edges – we fight over the coveted corner pieces! – you'll be thinking, Oh! Gingerbread Blondies!
Warm wintry spices, cinnamon, ginger, a touch of cloves and even a tidge of white pepper.
Most of all, bursts of juicy, sour cranberry.
FRESH CRANBERRY BARS
Time to table: 4 hours
Makes an 8x8 pan (36 small squares), double ingredients for a 9x13 pan
- 6 tablespoons (85g) salted butter, melted
- 1 cup (200g) dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon (15g) molasses, mild to blackstrap
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
- 1 cup all-purpose flour fluffed to aerate before measuring or 125g
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon table salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1/8 teaspoon cloves
- 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
- 2 cups (6 ounces, 170g) fresh or frozen cranberries, halved cross-wise
- 1 tablespoon "pearl" sugar, for "snow" topping
Set oven to 350F/180C. Spray an 8x8 baking pan with baking spray, line the bottom with parchment and spray the parchment. If you like, now's a good time to (1) melt the butter, 10 second increments in the microwave works great (2) make sure the egg's at room temperature, if not, drop it into a small bowl of warm water and (3) cut the cranberries in half.
In a mixing bowl, whisk the butter and brown sugar, working out any little brown sugar clumps by pressing them against the side of the bowl with the back of a spoon. Whisk in the molasses, egg and vanilla, just until mixed, you don't want to add any air.
Collect the flour, baking powder, salt and spices in a bowl, toss really well. Toss a tablespoon or two of these dry ingredients with the cranberries, then dump both the dry ingredients and the cranberries into the bowl. With a spatula, stir just until the flour disappears.
Drop the thick batter in dollops into the prepared pan. Use the back of a spoon or an offset spatula to spread it evenly across the pan. Scatter sugar "snow" across the top.
Bake for 45 – 55 minutes, less for a softer, more cakey bar, more for a dense, more chewy bar, definitely my favorite. Let cool to room temperature.
For crisp, clean-cut squares, refrigerate the bars right in the pan for a couple of hours until fully chilled, then turn out in one piece onto a cutting board and cut into squares.
Fresh Cranberry Bars are so moist, they should be kept in the refrigerator. That also makes sure every bite is chewy!
More Recipes Calling for Fresh Cranberries
The "Cranberry Course" for Holiday Meals
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