I love pumpkin filling, but my favorite part would have to be the crust (I am such a pie girl). That's the element that can make or break the pie. Soggy, salty or tough crusts make me want to cry. So naturally, when the filling came out of the pie pan, it was essential that an absolutely scrumptious crust had to take its place. Enter my debatably all-time favorite cookie...shortbread. Buttery, sturdy and oh-so-simple shortbread is a perfect companion to the rich and savory pumpkin. It's a great substitute - subtle enough to let the pumpkin remain the star while adding its wonderful texture and excellent flavor. Now since it's covered with oodles of pumpkin, the shortbread is not as crumbly as your average cookie (think lemon bars). But since it's thicker than your average pie crust, you end up with portable little squares of pumpkin pie that are perfect for passing around a dinner party. So fabulous.
Being an ever impatient red-head, I tend sporadically sprinkle the pecans on the top of the pumpkin, while the hubs and his well-trained medical eye points out the spots that look a bit skimpy. He's such a super kitchen assistant (seriously...I ask him to do this grueling work). But if you're serving this dessert to the upper-crust of society, feel free to artfully arrange the pecans on top (sorry - could not pass one up). Just be sure to cut around those little pecans so the bars don't go squish.
These are great little bars for a fall cookie plate or to share to friends. Since they are served either at room temp or chilled, that means that they are a perfect dessert to make the day before (always a winner if you're playing hostess). And since I always become ridiculously lethargic in early fall, I make it even easier on myself by baking the crust a day ahead of the filling. If you let the crust cool completely before covering and tack an extra 5-10 minutes onto your cook time, you'll find they turn out perfectly.
Now if you're cool with the pre-holiday pumpkin pie, you may find this unnecessary. But odds are you're currently checking your pantry for pecans. Sorry walnuts.
Pumpkin Shortbread Bars with Candied Pecans (about 12-16 bars)
For the crust:
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temp
- 1/3 c sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1 c flour
For the pie (almost exactly what's on the back of the can):
- 3/4 c sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp ground clove
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 2 eggs
- 15 oz pureed pumpkin (canned or homemade)
- 1 12-oz can evaporated milk, shaken (fat free works just fine)
For the topping:
- 1/4 c unsalted butter
- 1/4 c packed brown sugar
- 1 1/2 c pecans
Place the softened butter in a large bowl or a stand mixer. Use your butter wrapper to grease an 8x8 baking dish. Once the pan has been greased, line with a piece of parchment paper or tin foil to fit, leaving overhang on two sides (to help in removing the bars once they've cooled). Grease the parchment paper and set the pan aside (pre-greasing the pan helps the parchment stick).
Add the sugar to the butter and beat until light and smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the salt and flour, then mix together on the lowest speed or by hand until combined. Lightly flour your hands and transfer the dough to the prepared pan. Press the dough into the bottom of the pan, building up a 1/4 edge around the sides, and re-flouring your hands as necessary whenever the dough starts to stick. Place in the refrigerator and chill for 15 minutes and pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Once the dough has chilled, transfer to the oven and bake for 15-17 minutes, until the crust is fragrant and just starting to brown on top. Remove to a cork board or wire rack and let cool.
While the crust bakes, make your filling. In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clove. Crack the eggs into a large mixing bowl and whisk together. Add the pumpkin and spice mixture to the eggs and stir until well combined, then mix in the evaporated milk until smooth. Pour the mixture into the prepared crust and bake for 35-40 minutes, until center is nearly set.
Once the bars are in the oven, make your candied pecans. Place a pot over medium-low heat and add the butter. Once it has melted, addd the brown sugar and stir until smooth. Add the pecans and stir until the nuts are evenly coated in the sugar mixture. Remove the pan from heat. Line a cutting board with a piece of parchment paper and transfer the nuts to the parchment to cool. Be sure to scoop out all that delicious extra sugar-butter, too.
When the sides of your bars but the center is not yet done, remove the bars from the oven and set on a burner. Sprinkle the pecans over the top of the bars along with the extra sugar-butter, making sure they are evenly distributed. Return the bars to the oven and bake for another 10-15 minutes, or until the bars are fragrant and set. Remove and cool completely slicing with a very sharp knife to serve. Bars can either be lifted out of the pan by the parchment paper onto a cutting board or cut in the pan. Store in an air-tight container without parchment paper for up to a week in the refrigerator or longer in the freezer.