Buttery, crunchy finish to an alfresco meal

Entertaining

Squares topped with caramel have great flavor and travel well

Entertaining

August 18, 2002|By Betty Rosbottom | By Betty Rosbottom,Special to the Sun

From where we live in western Massachusetts, there are all sorts of outdoor cultural events nearby to enjoy during warm weather. The Boston Symphony Orchestra moves its home to Tanglewood in the Berkshires for the summer, and a few miles away there's Jacob's Pillow for those who love contemporary dance. In the farthest corner of our state, Williamstown plays host to a nationally acclaimed summer theater. All our friends take advantage of these neighboring attractions and typically take potluck picnic meals to enjoy before the performances.

On many occasions my husband and I have participated in one of these "suppers on the lawn." Typically, when I make a culinary contribution, I offer to bring dessert. It cannot be a fragile creation because it needs to travel a fair distance, so the best finales for such dinners are little pick-ups. Homemade brownies or cookies, little cupcakes or bars, which can be packed in a hamper and transported without fear of damage, work perfectly.

Recently, as I finished working on a recipe for rich Caramel-Almond Squares, I realized that they would become part of my picnic repertoire for these occasions. The squares, which can be prepared two days in advance, consist of a butter-rich crust that is baked until fully done and then topped with a creamy caramel mixture tossed with toasted slivered almonds. The almond squares can easily stand on their own or could be offered with a bowl of fresh raspberries or strawberries. They would also be delectable served with vanilla or peach ice cream.

These little nibbles are so irresistible that I can never eat only one, so when I bake them for the next alfresco event, I'm planning to make an extra batch for indulging during the ride over and back.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.

Caramel-Almond Squares

Makes 16 squares

CRUST:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus extra butter for greasing baking pan

1 cup flour

3 tablespoons powdered sugar

TOPPING:

2 ounces regular or reduced- fat (not nonfat) cream cheese

1/4 cup whipping cream

3/4 cup granulated sugar

6 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 3/4 cups slivered almonds, toasted (see Note)

Arrange rack at center position and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter 8-inch-square baking pan and set aside.

To prepare crust, place flour and powdered sugar in bowl of food processor. Add butter, then process, pulsing machine, until mixture resembles coarse meal. (Alternatively, by hand, place flour and sugar in mixing bowl and add butter. Cut butter into dry ingredients using pastry blender or 2 table knives.)

Transfer mixture to work surface and knead gently until it holds together and forms a solid mass. Press dough into even layer in prepared pan.

Bake until crust is golden-brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature.

To prepare topping, in small bowl, whisk together cream cheese and cream until smooth and blended. Set aside.

Place granulated sugar and water in heavy, medium saucepan over medium heat, swirling pan occasionally until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil, without stirring, until syrup turns a rich brown color, about 8 minutes. Remove pan from heat. Stir in cream cheese and cream mixture. Avert your head, as mixture will bubble vigorously.

Whisk in 3 tablespoons butter, then mix in almonds. Pour filling over crust. Spread evenly with metal spatula or table knife. Let stand at room temperature until cool and set, at least 1 hour or longer. Cut into 16 squares. Store in airtight container up to 2 days.

Note: To toast almonds, spread almonds on rimmed baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees on center rack until lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Watch carefully so nuts do not burn. Remove and cool.

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