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 eventually my browned butter fig bars were born. (Not a bad place to land; they’re a big favorite!)
About a year later, I made 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 still in full swing as I write this. 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 (4 ounces / 113 grams) almond meal*
- 1 cup (5 ounces / 140 grams) all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 7 ounces (198 grams) firm blanched almond paste, softened/lukewarm*
- 6 ounces (170 grams) unsalted butter, softened
- ¾ cup (5.3 ounces / 150 grams) granulated sugar
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon pure almond extract
- finely grated zest of one orange*
- 13.5 ounces (383 grams) halved, pitted cherries (from about 1 pound whole cherries)*
- Optional: ½ cup (3.5 ounces / 100 grams) white chocolate, chopped or chips*
Position one oven rack in the lowest position and one at middle height. Preheat oven to 350 F.
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 or ceramic 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 fluffy. Reduce speed to medium. With mixer on, gradually add the lukewarm (soft) almond paste, in grape-sized pieces. (I pinch pieces off the log of almond paste and toss them in.) Once all almond paste is added and incorporated, beat in the egg yolks one at a time, followed by the extracts. Stopping to scrape bowl often, add the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated. Finally, fold in the orange zest until evenly dispersed.
Transfer dough to prepared baking pan and spread evenly to edges. Add 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 (10 minutes if your pan is glass or very dark metal, or if your lowest rack is especially close to the heat source. More time is needed for lighter colored metal pans and ceramic pans). Move pan to center rack and bake 20-25 minutes (longer if the bottom-rack step was shorter). A total bake time of 40-45 minutes is generally about right. When ready, edges will be browned, area between cherries should look toasty, and cherries will be wrinkled. Remove from oven and let cool completely in pan to room temperature.
If you used parchment, gently lift the cookie slab and transfer to a cutting board, and carefully remove and discard the parchment.
Using a sharp knife, 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.
Make the drizzle: Gently melt white chocolate in a double boiler or in 20 seconds spans in the microwave. Stir regularly and stop heating just when you can stir the pieces smooth. If desired, whisk in a couple of drops of almond extract. Transfer white chocolate to a pastry bag fitted with a writing tip, or a plastic sandwich bag with a tiny corner cut off. Drizzle over the cookie bars in zigzagged stripes. Let drizzle 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.
*Maybe next time…
Shown here, I used skin-on (unblanched) almond meal for its flecked texture and extra nuttiness, but blanched almond flour also works well 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 (not the runny kind that comes in a can).
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. Alternatively, a glaze made from powdered sugar and either citrus juice or liqueur would also be scrumptious and easy (Grand Marnier or Kirsch come to mind). To do so, just sift a cup of powdered sugar into a bowl, and add liquid very gradually, by the half-teaspoon, whisking until pourable but thick.
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.