A Sure Thing

I think everyone needs a certain sense of security; things they can unquestionably rely on no matter what.  Existential truths, economic theories, the unfaltering support of a partner, or a mere stuffed animal or other childhood relic.  Here are some things that I count on:

My cat watching from the front window to see me returning from the gym.  His head poking around the blinds and the urgent “meow” he utters as he spots me before running to the door to get under my feet so I don’t forget he hasn’t been fed.  I know exactly what that meow sounds like even though I can’t hear it.  The truth that even if he has already had dinner he will try to trick me into giving him seconds.

An almost insatiable appetite for ice cream no matter the season (particularly vanilla DQ soft serve in a cone with or without sprinkles depending on my mood). The story goes that an alumna of my alma mater donated money for the sole purpose of providing several flavors of ice cream in all the dining halls at all times.  I came to count on it.  The way some college students survive on cereal, I survived on ice cream.  Mr. R likes to say that Ice cream is the solution to all the world’s problems.  Quick, what am I thinking about?! ….probably ice cream….

My three favorite holidays in order: Christmas, my birthday (tied with an annual WI chocolate shop tour I take with my Dad around the same time), and the MN state fair.  If some of those don’t sound like holidays to you, just remember that this Thursday, Nov. 15th, is national bundt cake day…


There are so many things we can’t count on, each day filled with so many unpredictable bits no matter how down to a “T” we think we have it or how “routine” our schedules may be. Maybe the fact that my experiments at work so often yield unexpected results which make it impossible to plan a week (or sometimes even a day) ahead make me skeptical of the predictability of life outside the lab, but I think it’s true.

For the last few weeks we’ve had a first-year graduate student in the lab.  They come for four weeks and get a mini project to work on, but the real purpose is to give them a feel for the lab so they can choose where they want to spend the next 5 or more years of their education.  On her last day, I needed to bring something in. Something to remind her that she wouldn’t be so well fed if she joined any other lab (at least until I graduate next year).  I needed a sure thing, and this recipe is one of those things.  Sure to be in my back pocket when I need to pull out all the caloric stops to make a memorable impression; a buttery, sweet and salty treat that is sure to impress.

Sweet and Salty Butterscotch Cashew Bars
(adapted from “The Chefs of the Times” St. Martin’s Press, 2001)
Boss Hog M.* sent me the following email the Saturday after I brought these to lab:
“btw those caramel things you made on friday were to die for..please do not tempt me like that..i am really working hard to lose weight…but if i have to eat something sweet, those are the ones i want…thank you..”
Brown Sugar Shortbread:
2 sticks + 2 Tbsp softened butter
3/4 Cup + 2 Tbsp brown sugar (dark or light)
2 1/2 Cup AP flour
1 3/4 tsp salt
Butterscotch topping:
I bag butterscotch chips (Hershey’s or Nestle)
3 1/2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp water
1/2 Cup + 2 Tbsp honey
2 1/2 Cups roasted, salted cashew halves (or 3 Cups whole)

Preheat oven to 350°.  Line a 9×13″ pan with foil and grease the foil (skip this step and the bars will be wicked hard to get out of the pan, I learned the hard way so you don’t have to).

Cream together the butter and brown sugar until light.  Mix the salt into the flour then add to the butter and sugar.  Mix just until it starts coming together into crumbs.  If you mix until the dough all comes together into a ball the shortbread will get tough; crumbs are really what you’re looking for here.  Pour the crumbs into your prepared pan and gently press them down to cover.  don’t press them down too much, just enough to smush them all together.

Bake the shortbread for 5 minutes, then open the door and prick all over with a fork to let out any steam bubbles.  Bake for another 7 minutes until set and lightly browned.  Remove the pan from the oven to a cooling rack but keep the oven on.  (Beware, it smells amazing! Resist the urge to just eat the shortbread and proceed make the topping.  It’s worth it, I promise.)

Melt the butterscotch chips and butter together in a pot over medium heat with the water and honey  until everything is smooth and starting to bubble.  Pour the butterscotch over the cooling shortbread and spread all the way to the edges with a spatula.  Sprinkle the cashews over the bars and press down lightly.  (I think halves and pieces cover the bars more completely than whole nuts so you get cashew in every bite.  They are also less expensive, but if you’re feeling generous or want the bars to look good for a special occasion you can splurge on whole cashews.)  Return the bars to the oven for 13 minutes until the butterscotch is bubbling all around the cashews.  Remove the bars and allow to cool completely before cutting into squares.

These bars freeze excellently and can be prepared in advance.  Just don’t tell me I didn’t warn you that putting these in the freezer in an effort to stop eating them will not work; they taste just as good (or better) frozen as not.

*A pseudonym he came up with himself a few years ago. Maybe because his wife breeds heirloom pigs; pigs he talks about with the kind of mock disdain that barely hides his underlying pride about doing something off the beaten path (even if it means chaffing an endless trail of dried pig muck from his keen boots everywhere he goes).

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