It’s funny how a recipe can evolve, branch off, and even come full circle. A couple of years ago, I was determined to make a new blondie-like bar cookie with cherries in it. I played around and came up with a first draft but wasn’t happy with the texture. By the time I was able to revise the recipe, cherries were out of season, and a few months later my browned butter fig bars were born. (Not a bad place to land; they’re a big favorite!)
Before I knew it, I was making a delightful cranberry quince version of the bars (a scrumptious combination) and added sweet almond paste to the batter. But those, too, needed some revising — and once again, before I could finalize the recipe, quince had disappeared from the market.
So here I am, back at the beginning with cherries. This time, I brought along the sweet almond paste and everything I learned along the way. And cherry season is here. Huzzah!
With softened almond paste beaten into creamy butter, a burst of bright orange, and warm vanilla, these bars offer a fantastic flavor balance. Thanks to the two-level baking method, the bottoms and edges are toasty and sturdy, but the bars remain moist and soft inside — a perfect bed for jammy, wrinkled baked cherries. Amaretto-y and not too sweet, they can be drizzled with complementary white chocolate, or not — and they’re as welcome on the breakfast table as they are after dinner.
Cherry Almond Bars
Makes 20-40 sliced cookies, depending on size
1 cup almond meal*
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
7 ounces firm almond paste, softened and lukewarm*
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
Finely grated zest of one large or two small orange/s
13 1/2 ounces halved, pitted cherries (from about a pound of whole cherries)*
For optional drizzle: 1/2 cup white chocolate, chopped or chips*
*Notes on ingredients: Shown here, I used skin-on (unblanched) almond meal for its flecked texture and extra nuttiness, but blanched almond flour will also work and pairs particularly nicely with lemon zest in place of orange. As for the almond paste, be sure to use the firm, sliceable kind —such as Odense brand or the blocks sold chilled near the bulk foods at Berkeley Bowl. If opting for the drizzle, use high-quality white chocolate with cocoa powder as one of its main ingredients. Or for a decadent alternative, try dark chocolate. Finally, since fruit weights can vary, it doesn’t hurt to have some extra cherries on hand in case you need a few more to cover the bars. I prefer larger cherries which tend to stay in place and don’t shrink down as much as smaller varieties.
Position one oven rack in the lowest position and one at middle height. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
Prepare a 9″×13″ baking pan: If using a pan from which you’ll be cutting the bars directly (such as glass), simply grease it. If using a pan from which you don’t want to cut the bars directly (such as metal that scratches easily), grease sides lightly and line bottom with a generous sheet of parchment that hangs over on the long edges (you’ll use it as a sling later). Set prepared pan aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk almond meal to remove any lumps. Sift flour, baking powder and salt over the almond meal. Stir until blended. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar on high until combined and pale. Reduce speed to medium. With mixer on, gradually add the softened almond paste in grape-sized pieces. (I simply pinch pieces off the brick of almond paste and toss them into the mixer.) Beat well, stopping to scrape the bowl with a spatula if needed. Once all almond paste is incorporated, beat in the egg yolks one at a time, followed by the extracts. Add the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated, stopping to scrape bowl often. Finally, fold in the orange zest until evenly dispersed.
Transfer dough to prepared baking pan and spread evenly to edges. Place the cherries cut-side-down in rows close together, and press them down gently. Keep in mind that they’ll shrink and will want to move around while baked.
Bake on the bottom rack for 10-15 minutes (stop at 10 minutes if your lowest rack is especially close to the heat source, or if your pan is glass or very dark metal; thicker, lighter-colored metal or ceramic pans will need more time). Carefully move the hot pan to the center rack and bake for about 25 more minutes; it may need longer if the bottom-rack step was shorter, and/or if the cherries are on the less sweet side. A total bake time of 45 minutes is usually about right. When ready, edges should be browned, area between cherries should look toasty, and cherries should be wrinkled.
Remove from oven and let cool completely in pan to room temperature.
If you used parchment, gently lift the cooled cookie slab and transfer to a cutting board, and carefully remove and discard the parchment. Cut the bars as desired (my favorite is on the smaller size: two cherries per bar, but twice that size is also great). Transfer to a rack if adding the drizzle.
Optional drizzle: Gently melt white chocolate in a double boiler, or in 20 seconds spans in the microwave. Stir regularly; stop heating just when you can stir the pieces smooth. If desired, whisk in one or two drops of almond extract. Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a writing tip, to a parchment cone or to a plastic sandwich bag with a tiny corner cut off. Drizzle over the cookie bars in zigzagged stripes. Let white chocolate cool and dry.
If desired, transfer cookies into paper cupcake liners to serve. The bars taste lovely at room temperature and are also quite delightful when chilled. Store in a closed container for up to two days at room temperature or up to five days in the fridge.