Black-Bottom Cherry Bars (GF + vegan)
At the heart of this recipe was our inability to choose between shortbread cherry bars and chocolate-covered cherries.
When in doubt, my kitchen plan of attack is to mash it up. And thus, black-bottom cherry bars. Something for both of us in every bite.
On the bottom a shortbread-ish shell made with equal parts oat + nut flours and just enough coconut oil (or butter, if you prefer) to bring it together. Next a layer of chocolate sauce barely sweetened with pure maple. And to top it all off a deep crimson puree of fresh cherries enhanced by a subtle twinge of floral orange blossom water.
What’s in it for me?
Oats as well as nut flours provide plant sterols (also known as phytosterols), polyunsaturated + monounsaturated fatty acids, as well as essential minerals and fiber, all of which contribute to improved cholesterol levels and digestive function, promote heart, immune and bone health, and are linked to better blood sugar control.
In addition to fiber, unsweetened dried cherries are rich in antioxidant vitamin A and anti-inflammatory anthocyanin flavonoids, plus smaller amounts of copper, potassium, iron and vitamin C. One of the only natural food sources of melatonin, a hormone secreted by the brain, regular intake of unsweetened dried and/or fresh cherries may promote better sleep and wake cycles.
Unsweetened cocoa powder contains flavonoids, which have been shown to help reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including cancer, stroke, and heart disease. Cocoa powder also contains a compound called theobromine that boosts levels of feel-good endorphins and is a mild stimulant that helps increases mental alertness. It’s also one of the best dietary sources of magnesium — to maintain healthy nerves, muscles and bones.
While coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat (SFA), the predominant type of SFA called lauric acid that may have a neutral or potentially a beneficial effect on the body’s cholesterol levels. Coconut oil itself contains no natural cholesterol of its own. On the flip side, some studies demonstrate a link to increased levels of LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), so coconut oil — like all foods high in saturated fat — is best in moderation.
These bars are a notch healthier than others like them — more fiber, much less fat, and sweetened without refined sugar; also dairy-free, gluten-free and vegan — yet still they’re more punk-rock than floppy-hat-garden-party. That’s not to say that they aren’t perfect for picnics, potlucks and bake sales!
Cherries are a bargain right now (don’t be deterred by pitting), but you can absolutely use whatever is in season, looks best, or is on hand. Think delicate berries in spring, chin-drippingly sweet stone fruit in summer, crisp apple or pear in autumn, or carry it into winter with spiced pumpkin or tart cranberry.
Baking is a science, but it’s also an art, and this kicked up cherry puree + rich chocolate swiped crust mash-up is proof that ingenuity and creativity in the kitchen are good things. Have fun, experiment, and enjoy the fruits of your imagination!
Tell me… What’s your favorite fruit to pair with chocolate?
- 2 heaping cups fresh cherries, stemmed, pitted and coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 Tbsp pure maple syrup
- 1 tsp arrowroot starch (or cornstarch)
- 1/2 to 1 tsp orange blossom water, optional (see HGN Notes)
- 1 cup rolled oats, certified gluten-free as needed
- 1 cup nut flour (I used homemade pecan flour; see HGN Notes)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2 Tbsp pure maple syrup
- 4-5 Tbsp coconut oil, melted (I used butter-flavored coconut oil; can also use butter in an equal substitution)
- BLACK BOTTOM CHOCOLATE SAUCE
- 1/2 cup good-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
- 3/4 cup boiling water
- 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 2 Tbsp pure maple syrup, optional
- Preheat the oven to 350° F with a rack in the middle, and line an 8x8-inch baking tin with parchment paper. Set aside.
- First, prepare the cherry filling. In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the cherries, water, maple syrup, arrowroot (or cornstarch), and orange blossom water, if using. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low, stirring occasionally, until the cherries soften and the mixture thickens, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat; cool slightly. If you want a chunky filling, leave as is and move to the next step. If you want a smooth filling similar to a traditional lemon bar, puree the filling in the saucepan with an immersion blender (or carefully transfer and run through a food processor or stand blender). Set aside.
- Next, prepare the crust. Blitz oats in a spice grinder, food processor or high-speed blender until a fine meal is achieved. Transfer to a medium mixing bowl and toss with the nut flour and salt. Add the maple syrup and 4 Tbsp of the melted coconut oil; stir with a spoon to form a loose dough that holds together when pinched. If too crumbly and dry, add the remaining 1 Tbsp melted coconut oil.
- Transfer to the prepared baking tin. Use a rubber scraper or damp hands to firmly press and pack it down so that the bottom is evenly covered. Alternatively, lay another piece of parchment, or plastic wrap or wax paper, over top and use your hands or a flat-bottomed glass to pack it down.
- Bake the crust dough 15 minutes, then increase heat to 375° F and bake 5 to 8 minutes more, or until the edges are golden brown and there is some browning on the surface. Remove from the oven, and reduce oven heat to 350° F. Set the tray aside for 15 to 20 minutes to cool.
- Lastly, prepare the black bottom chocolate sauce while the crust bakes. In a small saucepan, whisk together the cocoa powder and half of the boiling water to make a smooth paste. Add remaining water, whisk again, and gently boil over medium/medium-low until the sauce thickens slightly, 2 to 3 minutes; whisking frequently. Remove from the heat, and stir in the vanilla, and maple syrup, if using. Set aside at least 15 minutes, up to 60 minutes. (It will appear thin -- this is okay. The sauce continues to thicken as it cools.)
- After the crust finishes its cooling period, pour enough of the chocolate sauce on top to very thinly cover, using a rubber scraper to spread over the entire surface. (Store any extra sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator, up to 2 weeks.) Set aside to once again to allow the sauce to harden somewhat, 5 to 10 minutes.
- Pour the filling over the black bottomed crust, and use a rubber scraper to distribute it evenly. Drop the tin onto the counter from a couple inches height a few times to remove any air bubbles.
- Return the tin to the 350° F oven for 20 to 23 minutes more, until the filling at the center appears set and the edges appear dry. Remove from the oven, and rest 10 to 15 minutes on a rack or the top of the stove. Transfer the entire tin to the refrigerator, uncovered, to cool completely before slicing, at least 3 to 4 hours, up to overnight. Keeps about 5 days in the refrigerator, covered, and is equally as good cold or warm.
If you don't want/need milk, a quicker method than the above is to run 1 cup raw nuts -- pecans, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc. (or seeds, to make them nut-free) -- through a food processor or high-speed blender on high until a fine meal is achieved. Add the rolled oats and salt; pulse a few times, then proceed with the recipe from there.
Leftover refrigerated chocolate sauce is great in milk, as a dip for fresh fruit, atop ice cream, etc. Remove the container at least 20 minutes before using to let it soften up. If you don't have a use for it right away, transfer it to a snack-sized zip-top bag or small tightly sealing container to freeze for up to 6 months.
+ Think beyond fresh cherries, e.g., blueberries, strawberries, raspberries or blackberries; peaches, plums, nectarines or apricots; apples or pears; cranberries, even pureed pumpkin or another winter squash.
+ Instead of oats, try quinoa flakes or, if GF isn't necessary, barley flakes, rye flakes or wheat flakes.
+ Swap out maple syrup in equal amounts for earthier sorghum or lighter honey.
+ Easily replace coconut oil in equal amounts with unsalted butter.
+ If you don't have orange blossom water, try rosewater, pure vanilla or almond extract, or even the cherry liqueur Kirsch.
+ Finish with a shower of powdered sugar, if you like!
Recipe adapted from Minimalist Baker.
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