Dessert bar bake-off: The best bars to bring to the potluck

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Nothing goes with a summer get-together quite like brownies and dessert bars. Not only are they easy to pack, they can be eaten by hand, with little or no mess. And they can be made in a relatively short time.

To make your summer food prep a little easier, the newsroom held a brownie and dessert bar bake-off Monday. Eight of our finest bakers created their favorite brownies or bars to be judged by their peers. The offerings included Carrot Cake Bars, Zucchini Brownies, Lime Brownies, Great Balls of Fire, Gooey Butter Bars, Chocolate Shortbread Caramel Bars, Marshmallow Krispie Bars and super-rich basic brownies. In the end, hungry newsroom staff voted for Managing Editor of Features Lindsey Hollenbaugh's Gooey Butter Bars, which were indeed gooey, but oh so good, with a rich, soft layer under an appealing marbled chocolate crusty top. Associate Features Editor Margaret Button came in a close second, with her refreshing Lime Brownies that served as an excellent palate-cleanser for all the chocolate we were consuming. And then, for fun, we've included the most surprising entry — a chocolate brownie with a kick, a Habanero pepper kick. Spicy-food lovers will want to include this one in your upcoming Fourth of July picnic for some real dessert fireworks.



GOOEY BUTTER BARS



These gooey bars are, in fact, quite gooey, but so rich and delicious. The butter in this super-easy recipe gives the bars an almost toffee or caramel flavor without the hassle. Because they are so rich, cut them into small squares and be prepared to feed a crowd. This is a perfect potluck dessert.

Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features

INGREDIENTS:

1 box of yellow cake mix

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

1 egg

FOR FILLING:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 eggs

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 3/4 cups powdered sugar

1 cup chocolate chips

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

In a mixing bowl, mix together cake mix, egg and melted butter. Beat until well combined. The batter will be thick. Spread batter evenly on the bottom of a well-greased baking dish. Set aside while you make the filling.

For the filling, beat cream cheese, eggs, melted butter and vanilla until smooth. Gradually add powdered sugar. Beat until fully combined.

Remove 1 cup of cream cheese mixture. Set aside. Spread remainder of cream cheese mixture over cake batter base.

In the microwave, melt chocolate chips until smooth. Mix melted chocolate chips with reserved 1 cup of cream cheese mixture. Mix until fully combined.

Spoon dollops of chocolate cream mixture on top of plain cream cheese batter. Swirl carefully with a butter knife, creating a marble effect.

Bake for 45 minutes. Don't over bake this — it should be soft! Let the bars cool completely before cutting.

***

LIME BROWNIES


I watched Paula Deen make these one day on The Food Network and knew I had to try them. Her original recipe calls for orange, not lime. I've made them countless times, and I've swapped out the orange extract, zest and juice for lemon, or lime, or my son's favorite, lemon-lime (using half lemon, half lime extract, juice and zest). Easy to make and transport to whatever gathering you're heading to!

— Margaret Button, associate features editor

Yield: 24 squares

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

4 eggs

2 teaspoons pure lime extract

1 teaspoon grated lime zest

Glaze:

1 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 teaspoon grated lime zest



DIRECTIONS:


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease a 13-by-9-by-2-inch pan and set aside. In a mixing bowl, stir together flour, sugar, and salt. Add butter, eggs, lime extract, and lime zest and beat with a handheld electric mixer until well blended. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until light golden brown and set. Remove from oven and pierce top of entire cake with a fork.

Glaze: Combine all ingredients in a bowl, stirring until smooth. Pour glaze over cake. Cool cake and cut into squares.

***

GREAT BALLS OF FIRE HABANERO BROWNIES



Although they weren't among our top contenders, these brownies, made by Joe Wotkowicz, mail room night shift supervisor, and his wife, Sherrie, are definitely worth trying! Rich, moist brownies — with a slightly delayed kick. People who tried them were saying, "Wait, wait ... here comes the kick!"



INGREDIENTS:

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

9 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 1/2 sticks butter, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 Habanero pepper, seeds and ribs removed, minced

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 large eggs

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking pan and line the pan with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, add the flour, salt, baking powder and cinnamon. Whisk to combine the ingredients and set aside

Place the chocolate chips and the butter in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave for 1 minute, stir to combine. Microwave in 30-second increments (stirring between) until all the chocolate is melted. Stir the sugar, Habanero pepper and vanilla into the chocolate mixture. Add the eggs, two at a time and stir until combined. Add the flour mixture and stir just until combined. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan.

Bake until the brownies puff up a bit and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs (about 25 to 30 minutes). Cool in the pan to room temperature. Spread a ganache or glaze evenly over the brownies, if desired. Refrigerate until the glaze is set and the brownies are firm.

Use the parchment paper to lift the brownies out of the pan onto a cutting board. Cut into 32 or 24 squares.


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