Take simple shortbread to a new level with a simple microwave caramel layer and a chocolate ganache top. These chocolate caramel squares are a showstopper!
These special 3-layer chocolate caramel shortbread bars are way, way easier than you may think. And they’re some sort of magic.
Each of the 3 layers has its own unique texture, with the caramel layer having the most chew. But when you take a bite into one, all 3 layers somehow have the same bite. ?
I’m not sure I’m explaining myself very well. Maybe scroll down to the bottom still photo and you’ll see what I mean?
Easy caramel without a thermometer
I happen to really love making candy of all types. I have no problem using an instant-read thermometer (I have the Thermopop instant-read thermometer and use it for nearly everything).
If you’re like me, maybe you’d prefer to make the caramel layer on the stovetop. Just use the instructions in this gluten free Twix-style recipe, and cook the mixture to a final temperature of 235°F.
But if you shy away from making caramel of any kind but you still love the taste and don’t just want to melt a bunch Kraft caramel squares for the pleasure, this one’s for you.
If you’re nervous about making caramel in the microwave, don’t be. It’s more forgiving than you think, and more forgiving than making it on the stovetop. If you end up cooking it beyond the “soft ball” stage (235°F, when sugar holds its shape in a soft ball once it’s cooled), it won’t suddenly become brittle and hard.
You can, of course, stick a thermometer in the bowl at any point during the process. But you’re going to be guided by time, and by color more than anything.
I used a few different microwave caramel recipes on the Internet as a guide (this one was especially useful) but ended up kind of going my own way. Some recipes recommend cooking the mixture for 90 seconds at a time, others for 6 minutes at a time.
I found that 90-second intervals mean that the caramel never quite heats up enough to change state gradually. I highly recommend cooking the mixture for at least 5 minutes during the middle interval (as described in the recipe).
Please be sure to take into account the maximum wattage of your microwave. My microwave is 1200 watts, and I cooked everything on HIGH power. If your microwave is particularly powerful, just use a reduced power wattage. For example, if your microwave is 2000 watts, 60% power would mean cooking at 12oo watts.
When the caramel begins to darken in color to a slightly deeper brown, you know that it’s changed state to something like the soft ball stage. The hard ball stage comes next, and the hard crack stage after that. Those are quite a ways away, and you aren’t likely to reach them.
And cleaning up cooked sugar is a breeze, I promise. Just soak the bowl in warm water, and allow it to sit in the sink. It will magically dissolve and be able to cleaned easily. I told you these bars were magic!
Ingredients and substitutions
For information on ingredients in the brown sugar shortbread layer, please see this recipe for brown sugar shortbread. The caramel and chocolate layers in this recipe are new, so here are my thoughts on the ingredients in those parts of the recipe.
Dairy-free: I’ve never made a dairy-free caramel, but I’m sure it could be done. You could try replacing the butter with half Earth Balance buttery sticks and half nonhydrogenated shortening (I like Spectrum brand).
I have read some success stories about replacing the traditional sweetened condensed milk with coconut milk sweetened condensed milk. You can purchase canned dairy free sweetened condensed milk, or trying making homemade sweetened condensed milk.
In place of the heavy whipping cream in the chocolate layer, you could use canned full-fat coconut milk. Just be sure to use dairy-free chopped chocolate.
Corn syrup: Okay, so light corn syrup is not the same as high-fructose corn syrup. It’s an invert sugar that helps keep sugar from crystallizing while it cooks. It’s particularly useful when making caramel in the microwave since the mixture is heated in bursts, as opposed to one gradual process as it is on the stovetop.
Since corn syrup can be difficult to find outside the U.S. (or you may not be able to have anything derived from corn), you can use Lyle’s golden syrup in its place. Honey will not prevent sugar crystallization like these invert sugars, so it’s not a proper substitute here.
Egg-free: All layers of this recipe are delightfully and naturally egg-free. ?
Sugar-free: I’m afraid I don’t know any way to make caramel without sugar. When heat is applied to the sugar in the caramel layer, it changes physical state. I don’t believe that sugar substitutes can be used in homemade candy-making. I’m happy to be proved wrong, though!
Chocolate Caramel Shortbread
For the shortbread layer
8 tablespoons (112 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup (73 g) packed light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (140 g) all purpose gluten free flour (I used Better Batter)
1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your blend already contains it)
1/4 cup (36 g) cornstarch
For the caramel layer
8 tablespoons (112 g) unsalted butter, chopped
1 1/4 cups (273 g) packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup (168 g) light corn syrup
7 ounces (1/2 can) sweetened condensed milk
For the chocolate layer
12 ounces bittersweet, dark or milk chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup (6 fluid ounces) heavy whipping cream
Coarse salt, for finishing (optional)
Preheat your oven to 325°F. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper and set it aside.
To make the shortbread layer, in a large bowl, place the butter, brown sugar, and salt. Beat with a handheld mixer or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until light and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Add the flour, xanthan gum and cornstarch, and mix until just combined. The dough will seem crumbly at first, but just keep mixing until it comes together. Transfer the cookie dough to the prepared baking pan, and press it into an even layer. Place the pan in the center of the preheated oven and bake until lightly golden brown on the edges and set all the way to the center (about 18 minutes). It’s set in the center when it no longer shines. Remove the pan from the oven and set it aside to cool completely.
While the shortbread is cooling, making the caramel layer. Place all of the caramel ingredients in a large microwave-safe bowl. Use the largest bowl that will fit into your microwave since the mixture will bubble as it cooks. Place the bowl in the microwave and cook on high power for 1 minute or until the butter is completely melted. Remove the bowl from the microwave and mix to combine. Return the bowl to the microwave and cook on high power for 5 minutes. Remove from the microwave and stir. Return the bowl to the microwave and cook again until the mixture has begun to darken slightly in color and has either reached about 235°F using an instant-read thermometer or can be pressed into a soft ball when dropped in a bowl of cold water. That should take another 3 to 4 minutes. The mixture will have changed in color to a slightly darker golden brown. The bowl will be quite hot by now. Pour the hot caramel mixture over the cooled shortbread, bang the pan flat on the counter to break any large air bubbles, and allow to set at room temperature.
Finally, make the chocolate layer. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium-sized, heat-safe bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer over medium-low heat on the stovetop (or in the microwave) and pour over the chopped chocolate. Allow the mixture to sit for about 1 minute before stirring until smooth. Pour the chocolate over the cooled caramel layer, and bang the pan flat on the counter a few times to break any large air bubbles. Allow to sit for about 5 minutes before sprinkling with the optional coarse salt.
Allow the bars to chill for about 30 minutes in the refrigerator until they’re firm enough to hold their shape when they’re lifted out of the pan. Using a sharp knife, slice into bars and serve chilled. If you allow the bars to chill so much that the caramel layer is hard to bite or slice, allow to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes before slicing or serving.