Thursday, February 2, 2012

Experiments in Gluten-Free Baking 101: Salted Caramel Chocolate Shortbread Bars (Gluten-Free, Grain-Free, Refined Sugar-Free, Vegan)

For today's session of Experiments in Gluten-Free Baking 101, I had my mind set on making Salted Caramel Chocolate Shortbread Bars. I had seen this recipe on pinterest, and just knew I had to make my own version. The original recipe used a regular shortbread base, with butter, sugar, and corn syrup in the caramel and chocolate layers. Not exactly the best ingredients for this sensitive crowd, but easily adapted. I already had a caramel filling in mind, with the intention of simplifying my caramel dipping sauce recipe from December. For the chocolate glaze, I would be adapting a recipe for Chocolate Glazed Brownie Bites from our upcoming cookbooks. So all I needed was a simple shortbread recipe. I just had to decide if I wanted to make a grain-based or grain-free recipe. Two factors helped me decide to go grain-free:
  1. The caramel filling has cashews, making this a nut based recipe already. No point in making a nut-free base, so I decided to play with almond flour for this shortbread (and for those sensitive to nuts, I've included links below to similar nut-free recipes you can try).
  2. My first try was actually grain-based and was a flop. Going with the fact that traditional shortbread calls for rice flour, I used a combination of coconut flour and sweet white rice flour. It was dry and flavorless, and didn't leave me with any desire to experiment with that recipe again. Problem solved. Grain-free was the answer!
Once I decided to make a grain-free base, I had to decide whether to come up with my own recipe or use someone else's. I have two conflicting beliefs when it comes to baking. On the one hand, it's always more fun to invent your own recipe or adapt another recipe. On the other hand, there's no point in changing an already perfect recipe just so you can call it your own. Why mess with a good thing? Keeping in mind how expensive almond flour is, I chose to find a tried-and-true recipe, and save my wallet the cost of experimentation. Brittany had recently posted this recipe for Samoas, and I knew the cookie base would be perfect for my Salted Caramel Chocolate Shortbread Bars. But of course as luck would have it, I didn't have enough almond flour and was out of applesauce, two main ingredients. So despite my best intentions to follow the recipe exactly, I had to adapt it anyway, and I needed to get pretty creative. After a quick scrounge in my fridge, I came up with a small amount of almond flour, coconut flour, and enough raw cashews to make my caramel filling and have some left for the base. Could I make it work? I think you know the answer to that! Here's what I did:
  • The original recipe called for 2 cups of blanched almond flour and 1 cup of tapioca starch. Tapioca serves a dual purpose of soaking up liquid and providing some extra binding power (i.e. keeps your baked goods from crumbling). I only had 3/4 cup of blanched almond flour, so I knew I had to make up the bulk of my base with coconut flour and cashews. Coconut flour soaks up liquid like crazy, so I knew a little would go a long way, and could theoretically replace the tapioca. I went for 1/4 cup rather than the 1 tablespoon of tapioca starch called for to help make up for the lack of enough almond flour. (Side note: I would not normally use a starch and coconut flour interchangeably in recipes, but I had a feeling it would work out well in this application. In general though, I wouldn't recommend it. Starches provide a lightness to baked goods, while coconut flour is quite dense.) And if I pureed the cashews in the food processor until they were more like a nut butter, that would provide some sticky binding power. Again, I was confined here to using what I had available. I had 1/2 cup of cashews left, so that's what I used. I don't always get so lucky when I'm experimenting, but when you're working with almond flour and cashews, you're pretty much going to get something that tastes great no matter what. 
  • Brittany's recipe called for applesauce. Like tapioca, applesauce can help hold baked goods together. I was out, but since I was going to puree the cashews, I figured I could leave that out with no problem. 
  • The original recipe called for salt, but since I was going to add sea salt to the top of the chocolate, I didn't want to use any salt in the recipe itself. 
  • Brittany called for 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract. In addition to flavor, I'm guessing this also helped bind her ingredients together so she could roll the dough out. After processing my ingredients, I found they made a nice dough that I could press into the pan, so I didn't bother adding any vanilla. However, when I make these again, I might add 1-2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract, if only because I could tell the bars wanted to be crumbly. They held together well, but a few pieces did crumble a bit when I was cutting them. Which of course is always a good excuse to eat that piece, since you don't want to have any imperfectly shaped bars on your platter, right? 
  • Finally, Brittany calls for butter, ghee, Earth Balance or coconut oil. I used shortening because it's what I had on hand, but most likely any of these options would work just as well. If I were making them again, I would probably try coconut oil to be healthier, but since I haven't tested that out, I'm calling for shortening in my ingredients list below. I've had disastrous results substituting shortening with coconut oil in cookie recipes, so I don't want to make any assumptions that it will work here.
  • I used the same amount of coconut palm sugar and baking soda as called for in Brittany's recipe.
  • The original recipe called for a 10-12 minute baking time at 350 degrees F. I found with the addition of the cashews, they needed to bake a little longer, and left them in for 18 minutes. Just long enough that the bars would hold together, but not so long to get crispy. I still wanted that buttery, soft shortbread texture. 
Once the shortbread base was made, I took a teeny tiny bite out of the corner to make sure I liked it. I didn't want to waste my caramel and chocolate on a bad shortbread after all. It was perfect. A hint of sweetness and a soft bite similar to traditional shortbread. All that was needed was to make the caramel and chocolate, and I was done! Easy peasy, and a recipe I would take to any party with pride. No need to make excuses for this gluten-free, vegan recipe! It was gone in two days, and I'll admit to you that I savored a piece of this confection as if it were the last dessert of a dying woman. The layers of flavor and texture absolutely melted on my tongue. I'm lucky really, that they disappeared so quickly, or I would be going back for seconds and thirds.

Salted Caramel Chocolate Shortbread Bars (Print-Friendly Option)

These little goodies will leave you craving more, and with good reason. The shortbread base has a buttery sweetness due to the cashews and almond flour, the caramel filling just melts in your mouth, and the chocolate glaze provides that final delight to your taste buds as you bite in. The combination of flavors and textures will amaze you. And no need to warn everyone that these are gluten, dairy, egg, and refined sugar-free. They'll never know!

3/4 cup blanched almond flour (78 grams)
1/2 cup raw cashews (63 grams)
1/4 cup coconut flour (34 grams)
3 tablespoons shortening (Spectrum Organic is soy-free)
1/3 cup coconut palm sugar (49 grams)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup raw cashews (106 grams)
1 cup powdered coconut palm sugar (147 grams)*
4 tablespoons Earth Balance Coconut Spread (sub: shortening, butter, ghee)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 

Chocolate Glaze:
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 tablespoons coconut oil (sub: Earth Balance coconut spread, butter, ghee)
3 tablespoons coconut nectar (sub: any liquid sweetener) *have at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Sea salt to sprinkle over chocolate (use sparingly)

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit inside an 8 x 8 inch baking dish. Cut it big enough that the paper will go up the sides; you'll use this to take the base easily out of the baking dish.
  2. Combine all of the base ingredients in a food processor until they come together into a ball. Press evenly into the baking dish. Bake for 18 minutes. While base is baking, soak the 1 cup of cashews called for in the caramel sauce in a bowl of hot water. Set aside.
  3. Remove baking dish from oven and allow to cool to room temperature in the dish (you can place it in the fridge to speed this process up once it cools some). 
  4. While the base is cooling, rinse and drain the soaked cashews. Wash out your food processor then place the cashews, alone with the rest of your caramel ingredients in it and puree until smooth. Once base has cooled, remove from baking dish and carefully place on a flat plate. Smooth caramel onto the base. I find it's easiest to place it in large glops, then smooth it all down with a knife.
  5. Now it's time to make your chocolate. Heat the chocolate in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring often. Once the chocolate is almost completely melted, add the rest of the ingredients and stir until a smooth consistency is formed. Drizzle over the caramel sauce and then smooth over with a knife. Sprinkle sea salt lightly over chocolate. Chill in the fridge until the chocolate has hardened. Cut with a sharp knife into 16 squares. I find it is easiest if you clean the knife in between cuts since it gets a bit sticky. Serve chilled. 

* To powder the coconut palm sugar, place it in a blender. Make sure the blender is completely dry inside first. Blend the sugar until it's the consistency of powdered sugar. Time will vary depending on your blender. 

Makes 16 squares

Want to make a nut-free version?

Have a recipe you'd like me to adapt for your dietary needs for a future Experiments in Gluten-Free Baking 101 post? Drop me an e-mail at with your recipe and dietary restrictions, and I'll see what I can come up with!


laurelvb said...

Yes. I WANT these. I also want some stomach stretching exercises so I can eat more than my fair share every 30 minutes until they're gone. HOW do you do this? I swear all you authors have closetsful of victims hidden about the place. Develop scrumptious recipe, taste, pass it to the closet. Right? I'm right, aren't I? I knew it! OK, Pinning. Bye. :-)

Single PAP said...

wow, those look AMAZING!!

CassidyS said...

These look great! I love how you've taken the time to explain how you came up with the recipe - thanks :)

Heather Jacobsen said...

These look amazing! We would love for you to submit your recipe to Stuffed Pepper. We're having a chocolate recipe contest right now! :)

gfe--gluten free easily said...

Saw these on FB or somewhere (LOL) and went ooooh, and then forgot to come over and comment. Luckily, the email was still in my In Box. These look fab, Iris! Love the breakdown on how you made them. :-)


Anonymous said...

Does the caramel taste like real caramel? How would you describe its texture?

Iris said...

Anon, No, I would not say the taste or texture is exactly like real caramel. It is softer, more melt-in-your-mouth, less taffy/chewy-like. The flavor tastes a lot like caramel to me, but it's been a while, so I can't say for sure. I can tell you that it's delicious, and that I crave these often!


Anonymous said...

Is there a way to make something similar without using nuts/nut flours (coconut is fine)?

Iris said...

Anon- Yes, definitely! Just use a non-nut based recipe for shortbread and bake that. Then use this recipe for the caramel, using coconut palm sugar for the sugar and pureed apple instead of pureed strawberries. Then add the chocolate glaze as noted. Have fun!

Angela Parker said...

Yum! I love a good shortbread base. Can't wait to try these.


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