Bar cookies: Holiday gifts with ease

Clockwise from top center, peppermint shortbread fingers, pine

Clockwise from top center, peppermint shortbread fingers, pine nut and honey diamonds, peanut butter blondies with chocolate icing and burnt peanuts, fruitcake triangles, cranberry-pistachio crumble bars and gumdrop blondies. (Nov. 20, 2012) (Credit: Doug Young)

I have a sentimental attachment to bar cookies, probably because the first recipe I ever baked on my own was a batch of blondies from "The Joy of Cooking." But there are also practical reasons why I'm still a fan.

As the holidays approach, and the list of cookie gifts I have to make gets longer, I turn to bar cookies to save time. Instead of portioning out dough by the spoonful or rolling and cutting for hours, I can dump a bowl of cookie dough into a pan and bake two dozen or more cookies at once. Many bar cookies can be baked weeks in advance, frozen, and thawed in time for gift-giving at the last minute. Another plus: Sturdy bar cookies pack well and won't fall apart in transit.

Here are a few things I've learned since my first batch, to guarantee success:

RECIPES: Cranberry-pistachio crumble bars | Fruitcake triangles | Gumdrop blondies | Peanut butter blondies | Peppermint shortbread fingers | Pine nut and honey diamonds

PHOTOS: Holiday desserts | Gifts for foodies

USE THE RIGHT PAN

Choose metal over glass when possible, since glass baking dishes tend to accelerate baking and produce overly browned undersides. Baking a batch of bar cookies in a pan that's too large or small will throw off baking time and may adversely affect the texture of the finished cookies.

DON'T OVERBAKE

A potential problem with bar cookies is that the batter at the edges bakes more quickly than the batter in the center of the pan. If you don't want those outside bars to dry out, remove the pan from the oven when there are still a few moist crumbs clinging to a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan. As the bars cool, the center will set up without the risk of overbaked edges.

USE FOIL

Not only will lining your pan with foil prevent sticking (bars will just peel right off), but it will prevent the inevitable crumbling that occurs when you try to remove that first bar from an unlined pan.

CHILL BEFORE CUTTING

To cut bars neatly, refrigerate them for 10 or 15 minutes before cutting. Colder bars are less likely to crumble than room-temperature ones. The exception are bars that become very crisp when cooled like Peppermint Shortbread Fingers. These tend to shatter if they're not cut while still slightly warm.

FREEZE FOR EASE

Single-layer, unfrosted bars, such as Fruitcake Triangles and Gumdrop Blondies, can be cooled completely in the pan, wrapped in plastic and then foil, and frozen for up to one month. Slice them when they're partially thawed and allow them to thaw completely on the countertop before serving.

Just because they're easy to bake doesn't mean that bar cookies can't be festive and beautiful. Peppermint Shortbread Fingers, glazed with chocolate and sprinkled with crushed peppermint candies, are as Christmasy as you can get.

Fruitcake Triangles enriched with nuts, dates, raisins and whiskey beg to be enjoyed with a glass of eggnog.

Simple decorations -- a dusting of powdered sugar or a sprinkling of chopped burnt peanuts -- beautify bars without much work. And remember, just because they're "bar" cookies doesn't mean they have to be cut into the same shape over and over. Try cutting your baked cookies into squares, triangles, diamonds and rectangles of different sizes to give your cookie selection some visual appeal.

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