Nut bars made with shortbread crust and a very lovely crunchy and chewy toasted nut topping. Traditionally these are made with a mix of ground and chopped hazelnuts, but you can use any nut you want. For this recipe I used a mix of hazelnuts, and pecans. Nussecken (Caramel Nut Bars) are a very lovely childhood memory of mine. We used to get them at the neighbour bakery, where they sat on a glass shelf next to my beloved Nougatringe and the also popular Ochsenaugen.
In German these kind of bakes are called Dauergebäck. Translated this means something like long-life pastries. They are called this because they keep fresh much longer than a cake. These pastries are like large and decadent cookies and I honestly love them. You can bake them in advance and have them ready when some surprise guests arrive. Or you can have them ready for yourself, when you want something sweet with your coffee.
In the past I shared a recipe for caramel nut bars that was free of margarine. I used refined coconut oil instead because I wanted to avoid palm oil. Recently I have changed my opinion on the topic a bit. I still try to avoid palm oil. I buy mostly organic products from German companies, and these products contain organically and sustainably grown palm oil. I do understand that people still want to avoid palm oil. But to me the debate around this product is a bit one-sided. Palm oil is being picked out as a problematic product (which it is, of course!).
In my opinion there should be a much broader discussion about how troublesome many aspects of food production are. There’s exploitation and environmental destruction in many areas that we cannot ignore just because we’re vegan. Chocolate is often connected to child labour. Even fruit and vegetable farming is not as innocent as some people think. We should see all these things and try to chose to buy food in the most responsible way that is possible.
When I used coconut fat as an alternative to palm oil based margarine, the topic of accessibility came up very often. Some people are allergic to coconut products. Others just cannot find refined coconut oil. While it’s available both at supermarkets and health food stores in Germany, it’s expensive and hard to find in other parts of the world. Unrefined coconut oil that has been hyped over the last couple of years is not a great alternative. It has a super distinctive coconut flavour that can overpower everything else in a baked good. In the past I often got emails by people complaining about this distinkt flavour. They had made one of my recipes and simply didn’t know that there was a difference between refined and non-refined coconut oil.
With this recipe, I’d love to please everyone. I have included my old Nussecken recipe that calls for refined coconut oil and coconut cream. And I have added a new version that is made with margarine. This version is easier to make and calls for less ingredients that most of you may have on hand. Both versions are delicious. You could probably compare this these caramel nut bars to an easier version of a pecan pie. They have crunchy nuts that are perfectly chewy underneath. Also, there’s a buttery, delicate shortbread crust involved. And chocolate. So what are you waiting for?
How to make pastry without butter or margarine
If you make nut bars with margarine instead of butter, it’s easy to take those traditional recipes and veganise them. But what if you don’t want to use margarine? Refined coconut oil is a great replacement if you keep in mind a couple of things: Coconut oil is 100 % fat while margarine has about 20 % water. So you need less coconut oil and maybe you have to add a bit of extra liquid. Also, coconut oil freezes and melts at a much lower temperature than margarine. Cooling a shortbread crust made with coconut oil in the fridge, is usually not the best idea because it gets rock hard pretty quickly. So you can simply press the crust into a pan without any cooling time.
For this coconut oil based version I made a nut topping that calls for coconut cream and sugar syrup. Both ingredients are necessary to keep the consistency of the nut layer just right: crispy on the outside and chewy underneath. These two items do replace regular margarine, too. If all of this sounds to complicated, you can skip to the margarine based version of this recipe. It’s easier to make and includes ingredients that are easier to find.
How to make pastry with margarine instead of butter
Margarine and butter are similar in their use and margarine is easier to handle than refined coconut oil. If you use margarine, you make pastry dough or shortbread dough exactly the way you would with butter. You use cold margarine cut into cubes and you chill the dough before you place it in a pan. Of course you won’t need an egg for your pastry dough. You can always use a little bit of liquid like soy milk or cold water instead.
For this recipe please make sure to already have your chopped nuts on hand. Also strain your jam through a sieve before you start baking: Breafly heat the jam in a small pot and press in through a sieve. Set aside to cool.
Nussecken (Crunchy Nut Bars with Chocolate)
Buttery shortbread bars with a crunchy, chewy caramelised nut topping.
Caramel Nut Bars (palm oil free version)
For the crust
- 120 g (1/2 cup) softened refined coconut oil
- 100 g (1/2 cup) sugar
- 250 g (2 cups plus 1 tablespoon) all-purpose flour
- 50 g (1/2 cup) ground almonds
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp soy milk
For the topping
- 150 g (3/4 cup) sugar
- 60 ml (1/4 cup) water
- 50 g (1/4 cup) coconut cream ((see note above))
- 1 generous pinch salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 100 g cherry or apricot jam
- 150 g (2 cups) hazelnuts, coarsely ground
- 100 g (1 1/4 cups) walnuts or pecans, coarsely ground
- 200 g (7 oz) chocolate
- 1 tsp vegetable oil
Caramel Nut Bars (margarine based version)
- 200 g flour (1 ⅔ cups)
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 80 g sugar (⅓ cup plus 1 tbsp)
- ¼ tsp salt
- 90 g cold margarine, cubed (⅓ cup plus 1 tbsp)
- 100 g margarine (⅓ cup plus 2 tbsp)
- 100 g brown sugar (½ cup)
- 3 tbsp soy milk
- 200 g ground hazelnuts (2 cups)
- 50 g chopped pecans or walnuts (⅓ cup plus 2 tbsp)
- 100 g apricot jam
- 200 g chocolate, chopped (7 oz)
How to make the palm oil free nut bars
To make the crust: Cream together coconut oil and sugar. Add remaining ingredients and mix until crumbs form. Line a 20 x 20 cm (8 x 8 inch) baking dish with parchment paper. Evenly press the dough into the pan.
Spread with jam and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
- To make the topping: Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan and heat gently. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil on high for 5 minutes. (See picture above.) Remove from heat and stir in coconut cream, salt, and vanilla. Mix everything until the coconut cream is dissolved. Add nuts and stir until everything is combined and no lumps are left. Spread on top of the crust and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown.
- Remove from oven and let cool completely before removing from pan. Please note that these are moist and delicate, so make sure to cut them carefully with a sharp knife. Cut into four squares and then cut those into two large or four small triangles each.
- Melt 200 g (7 oz) chocolate and 1 teaspoon vegetable oil in a water bath.
- Place the nut bars on a piece of parchment paper or on a cookie rack placed over a piece of parchment.
- Dip the edges into the chocolate or, if the bars are a bit too crumbly, use a spoon to cover the edges with chocolate and let dry.
- Store these in an airtight container at room temperature. They should keep for 3-4 days.
How to make the margarine based nut bars
To make the crust, combine flour and baking powder in a bowl. Add sugar, cold margarine, and salt. Knead with your hands, until all ingrededients are combined and the dough is smooth. Shape into a ball and press into a disk. Wrap in foil and place in the fridge for about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 180°C. Line a rectangular pan (26 x 16 cm or 20 x 20 cm) with parchment paper. Roll the dough into a thin rectangle, about 1/2 cm thick. Press into the pan. You will have leftovers. Set those aside and cut out small cookies to decorate the topping.
For the topping place margarine. sugar and soy milk in a small pot. Melt the margarine and bring mixture to a boil. Remove from heat.
Spread the crust with jam and spead evenly with nut mixture.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and cut into 4 rectangles immediately. Cut the rectangles into 4 triangles each and set the pan aside to cool completely.
Melt chocolate in a water bath and dip the corners of your nut bars in melted chocolate.
Place on a piece of parchment paper to dry.
Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 3 or 4 days.