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!