Elvis Presley Bars (Peanut Butter Banana Bacon Bars – with a vegetarian variation!)

When I posted the invitation on my Facebook wall, I was pretty sure no one was going to respond (except to heckle me.) Imagine my surprise when a couple of my friends — one from Sunday school and one from high school — responded that they’d come. That meant it was really happening.

When Saturday evening came, I drove across town, listening to the radio to distract myself from what I was about to do. It was only when I stepped out of my car and surveyed the busy roller skating rink in front of me that visions of ambulances flashed through my head. Was I really about to go roller skating for the first time in 20 years?

My doubts resurfaced a few moments later when I carefully stood up in my skates for the first time. I thought that the four-wheeled skates would provide more, uh, balance than that. They didn’t come with, like, knee pads or anything? Maybe some bubble wrap?

I looked at my friends and attempted a confident smile. It must’ve been about as wobbly as I was, though, because they both looked worried. To lighten the mood, I mentioned that I was actually considering trying to join the roller derby someday. They laughed a little too much at that. Hm. Bad sign.

Nevertheless, we made slow, shaky progress over to the opening in the rink — which, I noted bitterly, only had a wall around about a quarter of it. At this point I was pretty certain the night was going to end in one or more broken limbs. My left arm ached as if to remind me the Roller Skating Incident in third grade, which left me with a sling for a few months and residual pain well into my adulthood. I stepped gingerly onto the slick floor and pushed clear of the doorway, wondering what I’d gotten myself into.

Turns out my friend Meredith is a total roller skating rockstar. My friend Steven was slower but still relatively surefooted. Next to them, I felt like a roller skating walrus with a coordination problem. They were ruthlessly encouraging, though, assuring me I was doing well despite my tendency to flail-and-scream every 30 seconds or so.

I did huff and puff. And I did hug the wall more than my friends. And I did take several breaks. And my quads did start burning because I’m in roughly the same physical shape as an old lady with a video gaming addiction.

But I want you to know that I did not fall even once! I want you to know that I upgraded to fancy inline skates! I want you to know that Meredith assured me (sincerely!) that I was doing tons better by the end of the night! And most importantly, I want you to know that the only thing louder than the rockin’ roller rink soundtrack and the gaggles of middle school girls was the sound of our laughter — because we had so much fun.

Roller skating was a blast from the past. Meredith, Steven, and I have already decided to make a monthly date out of it. Who knows, maybe after a few months practice, the roller derby will recruit me. No? Okay, maybe not.

Another blast from the past that I enjoyed recently (one that you might actually want to join me for!) are these Elvis Presley Bars. They’re based on Elvis’s favorite sandwich: Peanut Butter, Banana, and Bacon. Anything with bananas and peanut butter has that elementary-school-lunch nostalgia that I love, but adding bacon for a salty twist makes these bars extra delicious. Don’t worry if you’re a vegetarian; big crunchy pretzels can be used as your salty component. Either way, I think Mr. Presley would be proud.

One year ago: Fig, Prosciutto, and Arugula Pizza
Two years ago: Chocolate Mousse Pie
Three years ago: Mallow Cookies

Elvis Presley Bars (Peanut Butter Banana Bacon Bars)

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, with peanut butter filling adapted from Fine Cooking
Yield: about 15 bars

These Peanut Butter, Banana, and Bacon Bars are a delicious combination of salty and sweet. Pretzels can be used to replace the bacon for a vegetarian substitute. Since the recipe makes a big pan of bars, they’re perfect for taking to a potluck or for pleasing a crowd.

Shortbread Crust Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt

Peanut Butter Filling Ingredients:
2 cups creamy peanut butter (use an emulsified kind like JIF, not natural peanut butter)
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 tablespoons hot water
3-4 bananas
honey for drizzling
5-6 strips bacon OR large pretzels for topping

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with a foil sling with the ends overhanging the pan to facilitate the removal of the bars later on.

Pulse the flour, powdered sugar, and salt together in a food processor to combine. Add the cold butter chunks and pulse about 10-12 times until you have the texture of coarse sand (you can also use a pastry cutter or two knives to accomplish this if you don’t have a food processor). Pour this mixture into the prepared dish and use a spatula or the bottom of a glass to press it down into an even layer. Bake it for about 15 minutes or until it’s lightly browned. Let it cool completely.

In a medium bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the peanut butter and butter until smooth and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the vanilla extract, 2 tablespoons of hot water, and half the powdered sugar to the mixture and beat until combined and fluffy. Add the rest of the powdered sugar and another 2 tablespoons of hot water. Once combined, beat for an extra minute until the mixture is smooth and thick like frosting.

Use a spoon to glob half the peanut butter mixture onto the cooled shortbread crust, and then use an offset spatula to gently spread it into a roughly even layer (don’t worry if it’s not perfect.) Lay banana slices across the entire surface. Glob the rest of the peanut butter mixture all across the top. Again, use your offset spatula to gently spread the peanut butter mixture over all the banana slices (you want the banana slices to be covered because bananas oxidize and turn brownish, so the bars are prettier if you can’t see them. It’s hard to get them all covered, but just be patient and keep working the peanut butter around, cleaning off your spatula now and then.) Chill the bars for at least 3 hours.

While the bars are chilling, preheat the to 400 degrees F and cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lay out the strips of bacon on the baking sheet and bake for 17-20 minutes or until crisp. Let bacon drain and completely cool on a paper towel covered plate.

When the bars are chilled, lightly drizzle the surface with honey (they’re already very sweet, so don’t be heavy-handed), and crumble bacon pieces over the surface (or top with pretzels as desired). Gently use the sling to pull the bars out and cut them on a cutting board. Serve them within a day or two (before the bananas get too brown), storing them in an airtight container in the fridge if needed.

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Lemon Raspberry Squares

I know I said that sometimes you need to settle in and let the hard times wash over you like waves. And that’s true. You need to do this the most when you’ve been running like a hamster in a wheel, trying by virtue of your own power to get somewhere.

Other times, though — those times when you’re exhausted and overwrought — it’s okay to build a boat.

Not a canoe. I’m talkin’ a big, sturdy boat. And it’s okay to get in that boat and put on some headphones. And a blindfold. It’s okay to sing at the top of your lungs, to willfully drown out the sight, sound, and persistent pressure of the waves until you forget they exist altogether. We both know that someday you have to get out and face the ocean. But it doesn’t have to be today.

I recently asked you on Facebook to help me build a boat and distract myself from the waves. We shared funny stories on a hard day, and oh dear, you are a witty bunch! I thought I’d share my own funny story in more detail here, in case you need a distraction today. I present to you The Tale of The Wayward Underwear.

(Did I just lose my sponsors? Oh well. Anyway…)

Back in college, I had a sweet apartment above my professor’s garage (hi, Dr. Peroni). It didn’t have a full kitchen, but I hadn’t really started baking yet anyway. I made chili in my electric skillet, hot dogs in my microwave, and that was all I needed. That and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on television. And my blue couch from Goodwill, which had no back legs and thus reclined. Awesome.

The washer and dryer downstairs was icing on the cake. I did laundry about once a week, but was usually too busy to bother putting the clean clothes away. Instead, I grabbed things straight from the dryer and threw them on before class.

One day I was late to my American Lit class and I did just that. I absentmindedly tugged on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt before hopping on my bike and pedaling furiously to my class. I made it in time, slid into my seat, and adroitly navigated the discussion of a text I hadn’t actually had time to read (ah, college). Everything seemed fine . . . until I began the ride back to my apartment.

About halfway there, I noticed something lying in the middle of the sidewalk. As I approached the object, it started to look familiar. Too familiar. Unacceptably familiar. I stopped a few feet away and stared at it, aghast.

There, lying in the middle of the sidewalk of one of the busiest streets in Davidson, was a pair of my underwear.

I know it’s traumatic. Just try to think of lemon raspberry squares.

My brain could not process the visual information it was receiving. Instead, it was cycling through myriad half-formed thoughts: Wha–? How in the world–?

I finally pieced together that my underwear must have been clinging to my jeans when I grabbed them out of the dryer. The fact that they fell off in the middle of the sidewalk was bad enough, but it was nothing compared to the realization that they might not have fallen off — that I might’ve worn them straight into class!

Just to make sure you have a clear picture in your brain, these were not my nice, normal underwear. They were my cute underwear, with little purple trim all over them. And they were lying about 100 feet from a college campus. This situation had no doubt been conjuring up images of drunken debauchery in passersby’s minds for the past hour while I’d sat in class, blissfully unaware.

And if there’s anything I was not, it was drunken, debauched, or scandalous in any way. I was as straight-laced as a new sneaker.

Standing there, staring at this pair of underwear on the sidewalk for way too long to seem inconspicuous, I tried to get a handle on my racing thoughts. However improbable, the idea that someone could link this undergarment to me and misunderstand how it arrived on the sidewalk made me flush with embarrassment.

Also, what was I supposed to do about this situation? I began to debate: could I possibly pick them up? They were some of my favorite underwear, after all. But if anyone saw me picking up a pair of underwear off the flippin’ street and taking them home, what would they think? Could I possibly leave them there? And let more people see them? And who would eventually have to pick them up?! I almost died.

After several minutes of standing with my mouth agape, I finally got myself together and rode home — without my wayward underwear. They were gone the next day and I don’t ever, ever want to know where they went or how they got there.

If you’re in need of even more fun after that humiliating tale, don’t worry. I have another distraction for you: Lemon Raspberry Squares. Think of your typical gorgeous, sweet-tart lemon squares on a buttery shortbread crust. Now mentally slather a layer of raspberry jam right down the middle. Now eat about 50 of them.

See? All better.

What’s your favorite way to get your mind off of troubles?

One year ago: Soft Sugar Cookies
Two years ago: Secret Garden Craft: Simple Luncheon Napkins

Lemon Raspberry Squares

Recipe by: Slightly adapted from Heather Christo Cooks
Yield: 12-15 bars

This is a dessert for folks who have a sweet-tooth! They’re sweet, buttery, tart, and downright delicious. They taste like sunshine.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup powdered sugar
1 cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
2 cups white sugar
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
raspberry jam (I think I used about a cup — just eyeball enough for a thin layer), room temperature

Note: You want your jam at room temperature here because in regular lemon squares, the lemon mixture is poured onto a hot crust. If you pour it onto cold jam instead, it takes longer for the middle to cook (don’t ask me how I know this.) I think having the jam at room temperature will help the whole dish cook more evenly.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and spray a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with cooking spray. You could also place parchment paper in the dish to form a sling if you’d rather — this will make the bars easier to remove.

Pulse the flour, powdered sugar, and salt together in a food processor to combine. Add the cold butter chunks and pulse about 10-12 times until you have the texture of coarse sand (you can also use a pastry cutter or two knives to accomplish this if you don’t have a food processor). Pour this mixture into the prepared dish and use a spatula or the bottom of a glass to press it down into an even layer. Bake it for about 15 minutes or until it’s lightly browned.

While it’s baking, stick a spoon in your jam so it’s ready to spread on quickly. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until fluffy before adding sugar while whisking constantly (if you stop whisking here, the sugar will “cook” the eggs, and you don’t want that!) Once the sugar and eggs are combined, add in the flour and the lemon juice, continuing to whisk. Spread the jam in a thin layer over the entire hot crust. Then pour the lemon mixture over the jam.

Stick the entire dish back into the oven and bake 15-25 minutes (this is such a wide range because the temperature of my jam might’ve made my baking time longer — it took my bars around 25 minutes to get pretty set.) Start checking at 15 minutes by giving the pan a little jiggle. The lemon mixture should be about set (slight jiggle only) and a light golden brown. If it starts to get too dark before it’s set, cover the pan with foil as it finishes baking.

When the bars are done, remove the dish to a cooling rack to cool completely before cutting (if you don’t cool them completely, I’m betting they’ll be runny, so be patient!) Use a sharp knife to cut the bars and serve them. You can sprinkle powdered sugar from a sifter over the top for decoration, but the bars are very sweet already, so go easy!

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Thyme Orange Cranberry Shortbread Cookies

“But I also wondered if he wasn’t right, that we were designed to live through something rather than to attain something, and the thing we were meant to live through was designed to change us.”
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller

I don’t know about you, but I generally feel like I’m right about things. I don’t mean that I’m always right, and I’m not a know-it-all; I’ve just spent a lot of time forming my beliefs and I’m a thoughtful person, so I usually don’t feel like my worldview is too far off base.

I think most people probably feel this way. There aren’t very many of us, I’ll wager, who walk through life feeling totally insecure in our ideas and worldview. We believe what we believe for reasons — sometimes good reasons, sometimes misguided ones — and we walk through life feeling pretty certain. Open to change, we hope, and open to learning, but pretty settled.

Every now and then, though, you hit a wall that sends your worldview reeling. Firm ideas you had about your life’s purpose, how to weather different circumstances, and how the world works suddenly seem a lot more fluid. In my own life, I feel like I’ve recently run into the Great Wall of China, not to be melodramatic or anything, and I’m scrambling to find confirmation or revision of my worldview. I won’t bore you with the gory details, but I’d like to share some of my revelations with you over the coming weeks.

The first one is that life is not about checking off boxes. Donald Miller, a writer who had to “edit” his life into a screenplay and discusses the process in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, realized that inasmuch as life is a story, there are certain elements that are necessary to make it a meaningful one. One of those elements is character transformation.

We sometimes imagine that attaining our goals in life is what makes us successful: finding a husband, having kids, finding a house, finding a job. Have you ever wondered why we never seem to arrive? If we never seem to be finished with achieving, maybe it’s because the achievement itself isn’t the goal, but how we change during the pursuit.

Everyone always says, “the journey is the destination,” but then when we’re faced with health crises, relationship problems, job frustrations, and uncertainty about our future, that ideology falters. We want solutions. We want to be on the other side. It’s hard to rest in the storm, knowing God is using every strong wind and bolt of lightning to transform us in the exact way we need to be transformed. That idea can even evoke hostility in people in the midst of their greatest trials — the idea that God would, even while holding us and loving us in the ultimate sacrificial way, allow us to endure seemingly insurmountable trials is difficult to swallow.

Moreso even than others, I can have trouble resting in a trial. I don’t fault God for letting me go through the hard times, but I do inadvertently try to make myself my own savior, scrambling to fix it fix it fix it! My anxiety gets the better of me, and I flail through all different “solutions,” some of which do more harm than good. Lately I’ve been practicing, instead, letting the trouble wash through me like waves. Maybe they’re strong waves, and maybe they’ll move me. Maybe they’ll even knock me off my feet for a bit. But ultimately they’ll flow past and disappear against the shore.

If you’re in the middle of a trial, practice thinking of each new difficulty like a wave and let it come. Then let it go. And in the meantime, maybe make some cookies. Cookies never hurt.

One year ago: Straw-Raspberry Basil Fruit Leather
Two years ago: Homemade Buttery Croissants and Pains-au-Chocolats

Thyme Orange Cranberry Shortbread Cookies

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: two logs of about 15 cookies each

These are some amazing cookies. Buttery, delicate shortbread is already delicious, but the addition of orange zest, cranberries, and thyme make these shortbreads particularly special. They’re not too sweet, but a drizzle of white chocolate sweetens them up. They’d be perfect for tea, snacking, or a dessert. It’s also easy to bake a log of them and keep the second log in the freezer for unexpected company!

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons crushed dried thyme
3/8 cup powdered sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated orange zest (about the zest from one orange)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup dried cranberries, finely chopped
about 1/2 cup white chocolate chips

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and dried thyme. In a separate large bowl, cream together the butter, orange zest, and powdered sugar 2-3 minutes or until pale, light, and fluffy. Mix in the orange juice. Beat in the flour mixture and then stir in the cranberries by hand to be sure everything is combined.

Use a sheet of wax paper to roll the dough into a 1 1/2-inch wide log (if you’re having trouble, chill the dough for a bit in the fridge before rolling it). Wrap plastic wrap or foil around the logs and freeze them for 20 minutes until firm (you can also double-wrap them and leave them frozen for up to 3 weeks at this point. When you’re ready to bake, just use a serrated knife to cut the cookies and bake as usual. It make take a few minutes longer since they’ll be baking from frozen, but just keep an eye on them.) While they cookies are freezing, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place the rack in the center. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Use a serrated knife to slice each log into 1/4-inch slices and place these about 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 8-10 minutes, rotating once halfway through baking. Let the cookies cool for a couple of minutes on the pan before transferring them to a cooling rack to cool completely. In the meantime, melt white chocolate according to package instructions (usually half-power, in small increments, stirring often) and spoon it into a plastic zip-top bag with a tiny corner cut off. Set cookies on wax or parchment paper and squeeze the melted chocolate from the zip-top bag over them in a zig zag design. Let them dry. Store them in an airtight container separated by leaves of parchment or wax paper for up to a week.

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Sweet Orange Florentines

“Don’t worry! It’s not scary. Here, I’ll go first.”

Her curly blonde ponytail bobbed as she picked her way through the freezing mountain river towards the sluice. She waved me over and I waded, fully clothed and reluctant, over to her side. The water was rushing past us, slamming into the rocks downstream in a mess of white spray. I must have looked nervous, because she reiterated: “It’s not scary. Watch me.”

She sat down in the freezing, frothing water of the sluice and was whisked away, laughing and splashing, to a pool downstream. Our 7th grade students, who had hiked to this stream with us as part of their overnight field trip and were now watching from the shore, cheered. It seemed easy enough.

You need to know a few things about me to guess how I was feeling at that moment:

1. I have older siblings, which made for some traumatic pool experiences as a child.

2. In college, my roommate frantically demonstrated (on the floor of our dorm room) how to swim minutes before our freshman year swim test, where I was positive I was going to be the first student in Davidson College history to drown.

3. It was a year later before I really learned to swim semi-confidently. I still opted out of taking a SCUBA class when I spent my semester doing marine biology because I was afraid I’d panic underwater and drown.

4. I did panic in about 15 feet of water at one point in the Gulf of Mexico, at which point I promptly requested that my friend drag me to the nearby boat. I think the undercurrent of hysteria in my voice got her attention. “Undercurrent” might be the worst word choice ever given the subject matter. Ugh.

Basically, I love water, but I am not fond of drowning.

sweet flowers for this post provided by one of my lovely vacation bible school students!

Ashley had just run the sluice right in front of me, though, and was safe and sound. If my mom were there, she would’ve begun, “If all your friends were jumping off a bridge…,” but thankfully she wasn’t there at that particular moment. I sat down in the froth of water, which was much colder than it had seemed when it was only up to my knees.

Gasping from the cold, I felt the water begin to propel me down the stream. I picked up speed and bounced through bubbles and foam before being deposited, laughing and flailing, into the pool of calmer water. Our students cheered. Ashley and I promptly posed for a soaked photo taken by one of them.

That wasn’t the first time Ashley had supported or encouraged me. As coworkers, we talked all the time about how to model certain behaviors for our 6th and 7th graders, but she probably didn’t realize how often she modeled fun, joy, and above all, bravery for me. I left every conversation with her feeling calmer, more joyful, and inspired — whether by her fantastic hand-crafted earrings, her creative outfits, her sweet relationship with her family, her bright outlook. How many people can you say that about?

Just recently, Ashley modeled bravery for me one more time. After teaching middle school Spanish for years, she made the decision to move her entire life to Spain, where she’ll be teaching middle school English! She told me that the decision — leaving family and friends and country indefinitely! — was one of the hardest she’s ever made, but after crying for a bit and taking a nap (we both agreed that naps are great for decision making), she knew it was the right choice.

Since she’s famous for packing light, I didn’t want to get her a physical going away present, but I did want to give her something she could “take with her” to know how special she is to me. She’s a cookie baking superstar, so I cobbled together this recipe for her. These florentines are based on some cookies her mom bought once that we all loved. They happen to be the best cookies I’ve ever had, so I hope she can bake them sometime in Spain and enjoy a “taste of home.”

Love you, Ashley!

One year ago: Itsy Bitsy Berry Cream Pies
Two years ago: Pulled Pork BBQ Sandwiches with Creamy Coleslaw and Summer Bean Salad

Sweet Orange Florentines

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: about 15 sandwich cookies

These are the best cookies I’ve ever tasted, seriously! Don’t be afraid of the anise extract — I hate licorice flavor, but the anise extract here is just enough to give an amazing depth to the orange flavor, not enough to make the cookies licoricey. These cookies are so different than drop cookies — make sure you only use a teaspoon of mixture for each cookie even if it looks tiny, because they spread out into the beautiful lace you see above. They’re easy and a lot of fun to bake!

1/2 cup sliced almonds
3/8 cup macadamia nuts, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
About 1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest (from about 1/2 orange)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/8 cup sugar
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 tablespoon honey
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon anise extract
1/2 cup white chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F with a rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the almonds and macadamia nuts together until finely chopped without letting them form a paste. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, orange zest, salt, and finely chopped nuts.

In a small saucepan, bring the sugar, cream, honey, and butter to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar is dissolved, continue cooking the mixture for about a minute before removing it from the heat and adding the vanilla extract and anise extract. Stir this mixture into the flour mixture until it’s combined and let it sit for about 30 minutes.

Once the mixture is cool enough to touch, use a teaspoon measure to scoop up 1 teaspoon of batter at a time and roll them into balls. Place these balls on your prepared baking sheets at least 4 inches apart — don’t skimp on this distance, because the cookies will spread a lot as they form their “lace.” Flatten the balls into discs. Bake one pan of cookies at a time, rotating once halfway through the baking time, until they are thin, lacy, and golden brown, about 6-7 minutes (this is one of those cookies where you inevitably burn the first pan and then get the hang of it, so don’t fret. Just keep a close eye on them). Let them cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing them with a thin spatula to a cooling rack. Repeat until all cookies are baked.

In the meantime, melt the white chocolate chips in the microwave according to package instructions (usually half-power, in small increments, stirring often.) Carefully spread a very thin layer of white chocolate (just a whisp or they’ll be too sweet) on the bottom of one cooled cookie and top it with another to form a thin sandwich. Place these on wax or parchment paper to dry (you can stick them in the refrigerator to speed up the drying process). Serve immediately or store for up to 3 days in an air-tight container with layers separated by wax paper.

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Malted Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Bars

Mornings are usually sluggish for my 7th graders, but this morning they were just barely reining in their excitement. Really, my hands were the only ones on the reins. I had a few last minute instructions to issue before letting them dive into the hip hop project we’re working on. Before I could finish, Jake’s hand shot up.

“We should work outside!” he cried. Ah, the inevitable springtime advent of the request.

Jake continued to build his argument: “It’s so nice outside right now!” Others chimed in: “We need space to work! It’ll be too loud in here! We need inspiration from nature!” Concluding their chorus, Jake slapped the final brick on the wall of pleading: he evoked the very outdoorsy nature of our school itself.

“It’s Woodlawn, Ms. Ruble.”

I looked around at their best attempt at persuasive puppy eyes. The battle was clearly won.

I sighed, vanquished, and that was all the permission they needed. They grabbed up laptops and lyrics and were out the door before I could so much as find my clipboard. They worked joyfully in the sunshine all class, pausing only to confer with me when I called them over to the picnic table where I sat.

I may sigh and “hmm” and squint when it’s made, but really, I don’t mind the request. At least once a week, one of my 6th or 7th graders issues it: can we read outside? Can we write our poems outside? Can we discuss outside?

My first instinct is always to say no, but I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s a relic of my first days of teaching, when a change in my schedule induced panic: What if I can’t adjust? What if my lesson plan fails today? The layers of experience and maturity I’ve gained over the years along with the pleasantly flexible atmosphere at Woodlawn have cured me by now, but sometimes my instincts seem to forget.

Thankfully, I can overrule them. And in so doing, I might even end up in the sunshine with some fantastic 13-year-old hip hop artists. Kids have the best ideas.

One idea kids love almost as much as being outside is eating cookie dough. Since I posted the three eggless cookie doughs to eat with a spoon, my students have been whipping them up like crazy. They come in with stories about how they made cookie dough at a sleepover, ate a whole bowl of it by themselves, or dumped way too much salt in their latest batch and had to throw it away. Okay, well they don’t always have the best ideas.

Their love of cookie dough has inspired me to work the treat into all of my middle school cooking camps lately, and that’s where these Malted Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Bars were first created. Seven students in my Brownies & Bars after school camp were the first people in the universe to make this original Willow Bird recipe. Didn’t they do a nice job?

If you think they look pretty, you ought to taste one. The cookie dough has a unique twist: a malted chocolate flavor straight out of a 1950s soda shop and bits of Whopper candies strewn throughout. I think my favorite part, though, is how well the buttery graham cracker crust supports the other flavors. If you’re a cookie dough fan or love a good malty dessert, you must make these.

As a bonus, this is one of those super easy recipes. You bake the crust for about 6 minutes and then you get to turn your oven off. A little mixing and a little chilling and these bars are ready to eat. I have a feeling my students are going to have a new sleepover snack.

Now, time to go outside and enjoy the spring!

One year ago: Maple Bacon Doughnuts
Two years ago: Assorted Truffles in a Chocolate Bowl

Malted Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Bars

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: 8-12 bars

These little bars are super simple to make but so delicious! A buttery graham cracker crust supports malted chocolate cookie dough filled with Whopper candy pieces. The bars are drizzled with chocolate and topped with, of course, more candy. If you have a cookie dough lover in your house, they’ll thank you for these.

Crust Ingredients:
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons butter, melted

Cookie Dough Ingredients:
3/4 cup butter, room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/8 cups light brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup chocolate malted milk powder (I used chocolate Ovaltine)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I like to use mini chips)
1 cup broken up Whopper candy pieces
about 2 tablespoons water (as needed)

3/4 cup chocolate chips (for decoration)
Whoppers (for decoration)
whipped cream (for serving)

Prepare your pan: Preheat your oven to 350°F. Prepare a 9-inch square baking dish with a foil sling. To do this, tear off 4, 16-inch long pieces of aluminum foil and fold them in half. Situate two side-by-side in the pan, covering the bottom of the pan to the edge (they will overlap). Situate the other two strips in the same manner, but perpendicular to the first. The overhanging foil of the sling will make it easy to remove the cake from the pan after baking and cooling. Grease the sling with cooking spray or butter and flour.

Make the crust: Mix the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter with a fork. Use the bottom of a straight glass to press it into the prepared pan. Bake for about 6 minutes and let cool completely.

Make the cookie dough: While the crust cools, in a medium bowl, cream together the softened butter and sugar. Add the cream cheese and whip the mixture until fluffy. Stir in the flour, salt, malted milk powder, vanilla, Whopper pieces, and chocolate chips. Add the water one tablespoon at a time stirring between each, until the dough reaches a consistency just a touch thinner than regular cookie dough (such that it will be thick but spreadable).

When your crust is completely cool, spoon cookie dough in big dollops around it and use an offset spatula to gently level it out into an even layer. Chill this while you prepare your chocolate.

Assemble the bars: Melt chocolate chips according to package instructions in the microwave (usually you heat on half power for a minute and stir, followed by 15 second intervals until the chips are melted, stirring between each heating) and let them cool slightly before pouring the melted chocolate into a plastic zip bag and cutting off the tip of one corner. Drizzle chocolate across the surface of the cookie dough. Press on Whoppers to decorate. Chill to set the chocolate, then use the ends of the foil sling to pull the bars out of the pan and then slice them into squares. Top with whipped cream to serve.

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