Lemon Gingerbread Caramel Bars

On the seventh day of Christmas … my true love gave to me … Lemon Gingerbread Caramel Bars.

The idea for this cookie popped into my head after seeing a picture of that classic combination, gingerbread with lemon icing. Could I get those flavors into a cookie?

On the first attempt, I under baked the shortbread and put too much molasses in the caramel. It wasn’t that the caramel was bad per se, but it definitely overwhelmed the more delicate flavor of the shortbread. So I cut the molasses by half, but then for some ungodly reason decided to double the ginger. Wrong move; way too much ginger.

On the third test, each of the elements came magically into balance. The shortbread was cooked through and decidedly lemony. The caramel had a definite, but not overly pronounced, molasses flavor and just the right amount of ginger. The flavor of the shortbread held its own with the flavor of the caramel. And the toasted pecans lent just the right amount of crunchy texture. Persistence almost always pays off.

Now, I’m not saying this is a cookie kids will love. And it’s not a cookie you can eat six of without pausing. No, it’s the kind of cookie you should eat slowly with a lovely cup of tea, on a still, grey afternoon, while contemplating the nature of existence and the bare lines of leafless trees in the distance. Eaten in this way, you may think this is the best holiday cookie you have ever tasted.

Lemon Gingerbread Caramel Bars

This grownup cookie combines a decidedly lemon shortbread base with a gingerbread caramel and pecan topping. When the caramel is cooked to just the right degree, it is firm enough to hold its shape on the cut cookies but soft and chewy in the mouth. The trick is to use an accurately calibrated candy thermometer and pay hawk-like attention during the caramelization process.

Lemon Shortbread  
1 cup unsalted butter, cool room temperature (2 sticks)
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg yolk, cool room temperature
finely grated zest of 2 large lemons
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon lemon oil (or ½ teaspoon lemon extract)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt

2 cups King Arthur unbleached, all-purpose flour (9 ounces)

Gingerbread Toffee  
½ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup molasses
¼ cup wildflower honey
¼ cup cream
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons vanilla

2½ cups coarsely chopped pecans, lightly toasted (400° for 10 minutes)

  1. To make the Lemon Shortbread, in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until creamy.  Mix in the egg yolk, lemon zest, lemon juice, vanilla, lemon oil, and salt.
  2. Add the flour and mix very briefly on very slow speed, just until a dough forms.
  3. Line the bottom and sides of a 9- by 12-inch baking pan with foil and lightly coat the foil with vegetable spray. Leave a foil overhang on the sides so that you will be able to easily remove the entire liner with cookies from the pan after baking.
  4. Evenly distribute spoonfuls of dough over the foil, and press the dough evenly over the entire sheet.
  5. Refrigerate for at least an hour and then prick the surface of the shortbread evenly with a fork.
  6. Bake at 375° for about 30 minutes, until the cookie base is set and nicely browned. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.
  7. To make the Gingerbread Caramel, in a large saucepan, combine the butter, molasses, honey, and cream, and melt over medium heat.
  8. Whisk in the brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and salt.
  9. Over medium low heat, bring the mixture very slowly to a boil. Wash down the sides of the saucepan occasionally with a pastry brush dipped in cold water to discourage sugar crystallization. Stir constantly and make sure that the sugar dissolves before the mixture is allowed to boil. Otherwise the caramel may turn granular.
  10. Bring the mixture to a boil and continue boiling, without stirring, until a candy thermometer registers 240º.
  11. Carefully add the vanilla and incorporate.
  12. Remove the caramel from the heat and let it cool for 30 seconds only before pouring it onto the partially-baked cookie base. (There is nothing hotter or more dangerous than hot sugar syrup; be very careful.)
  13. Bake the sheet of cookies at 375º on the middle rack of the oven for about 15 minutes. The center of the sheet will be bubbling softly. (Don’t overcook the toffee.)
  14. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.
  15. Carefully pry the foil away from the baking pan and then holding both ends, lift the entire cookie from the tray to a cutting board.
  16. Using a large French knife, cut the cookies into 1½-inch wide strips. Then cut each strip into diamond shaped cookies
  17. Store airtight, in layers separated by wax paper rounds, in a cookie tin, in a cool, dry place. Cookies keep for 2-3 weeks.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies, plus a plate of scraps for Santa’s helpers.

There’s More

Follow along as we bake this year’s cookie collection, and check out our past two collections:

Copyright 2010 Susan S. Bradley. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. Stacey says

    These look rich! Question: Do you sprinkle the pecans on the shortbread and then pour the caramel over, or vice versa?

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Stacey, you can either sprinkle the pecans on the shortbread and then pour the caramel over OR add the pecans to the hot caramel at its completion and pour them together over the shortbread. Makes no difference to the end result. And yes, they are very rich. :-)

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Feast, a little triangle of heaven. Now that’s downright poetic. :-) Now I’m running to check out your soup.

  2. beth says

    Question…did you cut these as soon as you took them out of the oven, or did you let them sit until the caramel set a bit? Love your Christmas-ness!

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Beth, thank you! I am a hopeless Christmas maniac. :-) For this cookie, let the caramel cool to room temperature before you atempt to slice the cookies. It will still be soft enough to cut when cool. Otherwise, it will just run all over. But even if this happens, you will find yourself eating the runny mess anyway. And I speak from experience. :-)

  3. mary beth says

    This looks soooo worthy of ‘hawk-like’ attention to my candy thermometer! Can’t wait for this indulgence!


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