"Pine Cones and Holly Berries"

Holiday baking, for me, often conjures up thoughts of visiting my college boyfriend's house for Thanksgiving. His family lived in a colonial Saltbox overlooking a lake outside a picturesque village in Upstate New York. There was always snow; proper deep drifts of the stuff thanks to "lake effect." Inside, the furnishings from centuries ago made the experience of winter itself seem like it too had come from another time. But what really made the visits memorable was the way my boyfriend's mom, knowing how much I loved to cook, made me feel at home by encouraging me to take over the kitchen, which I did rather happily.

This gesture was especially kind since she hardly needed help with the cooking. Although she was full of self-depreciating commentary on her culinary skills, she was actually a rather fantastic cook. Most visits resulted in at least one or two great recipe discoveries.

The Cranberry Turtle Bars pictured above is one such treasure. She made them after spotting them in Gourmet one year. Consider yourself warned, they are deceptively good.

They're the sort of sweet you pick up offhandedly, not expecting much; likely giving them a go in the name of the season, since that token holiday berry was thrown into mix. But half-way into your first bite you find your tongue melting into a decadent sweet-tart-salty-fruity-nutty-buttery confection you already want more of; it hits every mark. Holiday season or not, you make these bars because they are mouthwateringly-addictive; the fact that they feature the iconic berry is just a plus.

It's been years since I've been to that cozy house on the lake. But most of my fondest cooking memories are still those that took place in that tiny, borrowed kitchen. Fortunately, with the right recipe, I'm able to revisit it.

My recipe changes and alterations: You're supposed to garnish this with melted chocolate drizzle, but goodness, they're already so incredibly rich and complex, I hardly think they need it. So I leave it out. Also, instead of just pecans, I used a combination of pecans, walnuts, and salted almonds to give the bars more variety and texture.

Cranberry Turtle Bars

For base
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
For topping
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (not thawed; 63/4 oz), coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups pecans (12 oz), toasted and cooled, then coarsely chopped

For decoration
2 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), very finely chopped

Special equipment: a candy thermometer

Make base:
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Line a 15- by 10-inch shallow baking pan (1 inch deep) with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the 2 short sides. Butter all 4 sides (but not bottom).

Blend flour, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor, then add butter and pulse until mixture begins to form small (roughly pea-size) lumps. Sprinkle into baking pan, then press down firmly all over with a metal spatula to form an even layer. Bake in middle of oven until golden and firm to the touch, 15 to 17 minutes, then cool in pan on a rack.

Make topping:
Melt butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat and stir in sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Boil over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until caramel registers 245°F on thermometer, about 8 minutes. Carefully stir in cranberries, then boil until caramel returns to 245°F. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, then stir in pecans until well coated. Working quickly, spread caramel topping over base, using a fork to distribute nuts and berries evenly. Cool completely.

Cut and decorate bars:
Lift bars in foil from pan and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 6 crosswise strips, then 6 lengthwise strips to form 36 bars.

Melt half of chocolate in top of a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and add remaining chocolate, stirring until smooth. Transfer chocolate to a small heavy-duty sealable plastic bag. Seal bag and snip off a tiny piece of 1 corner to form a small hole, then pipe chocolate decoratively over bars. Let stand at room temperature until chocolate sets, about 1 hour.

Makes 3 dozen bars.

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