Storms swept through late last night, waking me early this morning when I heard heavy rain pelting the roof. Disoriented from a series of unusually vivid dreams, I sat up and peered into the darkness. I saw the faint silhouettes of both cats roaming stealthily around the house. I heard fat green walnuts hitting the driveway as the wind whipped the tree branches wildly around. I thought about a family gathering this afternoon and the birthday cake I had promised to make. I began to imagine three layers of moist chocolate cake filled with vanilla bean buttercream frosting, and my stomach growled. A chill ran through me and I pulled the blanket around me.
Unable to go back to sleep, I quietly crept into the kitchen to brew a pot of strong coffee. As I pulled one of the curtains aside, I saw the first streaks of dawn just beginning to lighten the sky through a break in the dark clouds.
I was eager to participate with other bakers in Sara Cornelius's #virtualpumpkinparty and I had fun creating these delicious pumpkin pie crumble bars. I filled a sweet-and-salty, cookie-like pie crust with a creamy pumpkin custard, and then scattered a buttery crumble over the top. Since pumpkin and caramel go hand-in-hand, I decided to play with my favorite homemade caramel recipe and jazz it up with vanilla bean and a splash of whiskey.
Pumpkin Pie Crumble Bars with Vanilla Bean-Whiskey Caramel
Yields: a 9x13" pan (about 18 bars)
My oldest daughter deemed these holiday-worthy, and pie-like in a bar form. The sturdy crust makes these bars easy to hold and eat with one's hands, and the bars are made even more decadent when served in a bowl with a cloud of freshly whipped cream and a generous spoonful or two of the homemade caramel.
For the Crust:
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tbsp light brown sugar
1/3 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp coarse kosher salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9x13" pan with nonstick cooking spray, and press parchment paper into the pan, leaving a parchment "handle" sticking out from each end.
In a medium bowl, mix all of the ingredients together until crumbly. Press evenly into the bottom of the pan. Bake for 15 minutes, just until light golden brown. Set aside while making the filling and increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
For the Filling:
1 (15-oz) can pure pumpkin puree
1/3 cup + 2 tbsp light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
Pinch of salt
1 large beaten egg
2 generous tbsp sour cream
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream
In a large bowl, whisk all of the ingredients together until combined and very smooth. Set aside while making the crumble topping.
For the Crumble Topping:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
2 tbsp light brown sugar
Pinch of salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
In a medium bowl, mix all of the ingredients together until crumbly. Set aside.
Pour the filling onto the crust (it's okay if the crust is still warm) and use the back of a small spoon to spread evenly over the crust.
Sprinkle the crumble topping evenly over the filling.
Bake at 375 degrees for 50-60 minutes until the filling is completely set and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. The crumble topping should be a light golden brown. Cool before slicing and serving; store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Vanilla Bean-Whiskey Caramel
Yields: about 1 cup of caramel sauce
This is a simple, fairly quick-cooking caramel that has so much depth of flavor; the key is to cook the sugar slowly over medium heat until it has reached a very deep amber color.
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, diced
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp water
1 tbsp vanilla bean paste
A pinch of sea salt
A big splash of your favorite whiskey
Measure out the cream and butter; set aside.
Add the sugar and water to a 2-quart saucepan (don't use anything smaller than this) and swirl - don't stir - it around until all of the sugar is moistened and looks like wet sand. You can add a few more drops of water if necessary, to wet all of the sugar completely.
Heat the saucepan over medium heat and keep swirling the pan as the sugar mixture heats up and begins to melt and sputter and bubble. Don't walk away. Don't stir. Just keep swirling. It will take about 5-7 minutes to see the sugar beginning to change color. I like to push the color almost to the edge of burnt, to coax as much flavor as possible out of the caramel. You can take the color of your sugar as light or as dark as you prefer.
Once you've reached your desired caramel color, remove the pan from the heat and slowly - carefully - pour in the cream. Stand back for a moment; the hot mixture will bubble violently and then it will calm back down. Add the diced butter. Carefully whisk the mixture until smooth, then pour into a clean glass bowl. Let it cool completely.
Once the caramel has completely cooled, stir in the vanilla bean paste, salt, and whiskey. Stir well to combine, and store in the refrigerator for about one week. I like to keep my caramel in a recycled jam jar covered with plastic wrap. As the caramel chills, it will thicken a little more.