The Zen of Baking Cherry Bars

My first year of graduate school, I baked a lot more than I do now. It was my way to unwind, destress. I’d get home at the end of the day (or sometimes sneak home in the middle of the day) and start softening up my butter and bringing my eggs to room temperature. I loved the sense of making something delicious and and beautiful from almost nothing at all.

It helped that I wasn’t as weight- and health-conscious at that point. It also helped that I was taking classes, which provided the perfect way to unload my baked goods on other people. Baking for one is very hard. I used to fantasize about being a full-time baker and being paid to give people my baked goods.

But then I started cleaning up my diet and exercising more. My cooking became more involved, which meant I didn’t have as much space in my life for baking.

I’ve baked cherry bars twice this week. This is not a healthy dessert; perhaps in the new year I will find a way to health-ify them. But for now, it’s December; I’m feeling indulgent with the impending holidays.

Layers of cherry frosting, a caramelized cherry-walnut center, and a shortbread crust.

Layers of cherry frosting, a caramelized cherry-walnut center, and a shortbread crust.

The first time I made them this week was during my baking frenzy on Tuesday; the second was yesterday, Thursday, because Angus I were going to a potluck and volunteered to bring dessert (I also made CCK’s deep dish cookie pie, which made for fun entertainment having folks guess the secret ingredient). The original recipe called for maraschino cherries, which I belatedly realized I didn’t have. Oops. But then Whole Foods didn’t have maraschino cherries either. Perhaps seeing my desperation, my total anguish, Bryan (the man who told me there were no maraschino cherries) said, “But we have jarred sour cherries. Maybe they would work instead?”

Maybe indeed. When I made the cherry bars on Tuesday, they were even better than they normally were.

It’s a rather involved recipe; the bars have three layers. But I like that. It’s calming; it’s methodic. It brings me back to the positive parts of the darker days of last year, when I was baking for comfort and company. I can bake these bars and just think; I can get lost in the caramel-y scent that fills the whole apartment. And then when they’re done, I can cut into them with Angus and smile because really, we are so lucky to be in a caramel-scented apartment with each other and cherry bars.

The unfrosted bottom two layers (far right), the frosting alone (center), and the final frosted product (right).

The unfrosted bottom two layers (far right), the frosting alone (center), and the final frosted product (right).

Zen Cherry Bars (recipe adapted from an old newspaper clipping my parents saved for years)

Prep Time: 1 – 1.5 hours, depending on efficiency

Active Time: about an hour

Ingredients

crust layer:

  • 2 sticks (1c) butter, softened and melty (I microwaved the two sticks together for 30 seconds)
  • 1/2c sugar
  • 2 1/4c all purpose flour, sifted or lightly spooned

cherry/walnut layer:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1c dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2c chopped, canned sour cherries, drained of their juices (don’t throw away the juice though!)
  • 1/2c chopped walnuts (the food processor is your friend)

frosting:

  • 2 tbsp butter, softened and melty
  • 2c powdered sugar
  • 1/4c sour cherry juice

1. Preheat the oven the 350. Mix together the butter and sugar for the crust. Slowly add in the flour, mixing until it’s all well-combined. Spread the crust as evenly as you can in a 9×12 baking pan; I used my fingers and it was a lot of fun. Bake for 20 minutes.

2. Lightly beat the eggs and add in the brown sugar, salt, baking powder, and vanilla. Beat to combine. Fold in the cherries and walnuts.

3. When the crust is done baking, pour the cherry walnut layer mixture on top, spreading it evenly across the top. Bake for an additional 25 minutes. Your house or apartment will start to smell really good.

4. Make the frosting: mix together the butter and about 1/2c of the powdered sugar. Slowly add some of the cherry juice and powdered sugar, mixing to combine. Continue to add them little by little until you have a smooth, bright pink frosting.

5. Allow the bottom to layers to cool on a cooling rack until they’re cool enough that they won’t melt the frosting. Spread the frosting over the top and enjoy!

Zen Cherry Bars

This is a great recipe for sharing; it’s not a great one to make because you’re bored at home alone and want to create something because it is so good and so rich that you will probably eat yourself sick, if you’re anything like me.

It’s also a great dessert to impress people with. It’s involved, but not tricky, so even novice bakers could probably pull it off. I had someone say last night that it was the best dessert he’d ever had.

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9 Comments

  1. “I loved the sense of making something delicious and and beautiful from almost nothing at all.”
    This rings so true for me, too. I can have controlling, uptight tendencies (surprise, surprise!) and I love the calm predictability of baking a familiar recipe, especially when the rest of my life is chaotic and insane.

    “And then when they’re done, I can cut into them with Angus and smile because really, we are so lucky to be in a caramel-scented apartment with each other and cherry bars.”
    Sweetest thing ever. I love it.

    Reply
  2. I’m always inspired by those that find baking to be relaxing. To me, it’s usually stressful, but after reading posts like this, I’m wanting to give it another try! Now that I think about it, I did have a successful baking experience a couple of weeks ago. Hmmm . . . maybe I’ll venture into it again soon. :)

    Reply
  3. Sweet baby jaysus those look so good. I need a bucket for how much I’m drooling right now. (That’s a cute mental image, no?) I totally understand what you mean about baking though. There’s just something about it that’s so calming!!

    Reply
  4. OMG yummmmm!
    Ha my trick for when I want to bake while alone and can’t give a lot away soon is to TEXT or call a friend, inform them that I baked for them, that way I don’t end up being like, sorry there’s only three small pieces left becaus I’m a gigantic chunk of lard

    Reply
  5. Um – YUM! These look amazing…can’t wait to try them! And I don’t think I have commented since your new haircut, but it’s super cute! It totally suits you! :)

    Reply
  6. i bake an absurd amount but I think that has partially to do with the fact that I have a whole biochemistry department full of people to unload the goods on. :P These bars sound fabulous and I love the sour cherries way more than the maraschinos! Definitely gives them an edge.

    Reply

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