With a lightly sweetened cranberry filling and a buttery base that doubles as the crumb, these cranberry crumb bars celebrate the humble fruit long after Thanksgiving ends.
I know what you’re thinking. In a month when all we should talk about is Christmas cookies, here I am sharing another fruit-based recipe. I can’t help it though – cranberries are one of the last fruit gifts we are given by the planet before the dead of winter truly sets in, so I have to celebrate them.
Not that I mind, really. Not that anyone who tasted these cranberry crumb bars minded either.
You know when you’re looking at a generic cookie platter at a lunch event or a holiday party, and amongst the many sad-looking chocolate chip cookies and dry brownies and bland multi-colored sugar cookies there is sometimes, miraculously, a stray raspberry crumb bar? The kind made with tart raspberry jam in the middle, where the crumbs tumble down your front as you try to eat it?
I lunge for those every time. Oftentimes, they turn out not to be all that great either, but I attribute that more to the overall quality of the catered cookie plate than the bar itself. There’s just something about the buttery base and the tart filling that gets me every time.
This is like that, but approximately a thousand times better.
I’m not sure when I first came up with the idea of using cranberries instead of raspberries, but around the time Imperfect Produce started sending me cranberries in their weekly produce boxes, I became obsessed with making it happen. These cranberry crumb bars are the latest entry in my recipe series partnership with them, and I have to say they’re my favorite.
I knew exactly what I wanted these bars to be: a more perfect version of those raspberry bars. Buttery yet light crumb; sweet yet tart filling. Enough spice so as not to be a one-note sugar concoction. Crumbly enough, but not TOO crumbly.
I started my experimentation with an oat-based crust and crumble I’d used before in these strawberry crumble bars. I went with the traditional cranberry-orange combination for the filling, which I cooked first so as not to have soggy bars. I invited some friends over for a college football game watch with my (award-winning!) game day beer chili, and served the bars for dessert.
They were well-received, but when I tasted them I knew I could do better. The orange nearly overpowered the natural tart flavor of the cranberries, it was too sweet, and the texture of the crumb just wasn’t right with the oats.
Back to the drawing board.
When I tried again a few days later, I made the following modifications:
- removed the orange entirely from the filling;
- decreased the amount of sugar, and used apple cider as sweetener so the cranberry flavor could shine through;
- removed the oats from the crumb mixture and added an egg yolk for structure; and
- used cold butter and cut it into the flour to create those crumbs I was looking for (even though it’s more work than the melted butter I’d used before – sometimes the results are worth it.).
With my revised ingredients, I forged ahead with making the crumb mixture that is pressed into the bottom of the pan to form the crust, followed by the cranberry filling poured over top, and finally the same crumb mixture sprinkled over top of the filling. Fingers were crossed.
And when the cranberry crumb bars came out of the oven this time, I knew I was on the right track. They smelled toasty, buttery, and holiday-like in the best way. If you can imagine the smell of spiced bubbling cranberries in a butter base, well, you probably are drooling as much as I am right now.
When Brian tried these, he immediately asked: “Why haven’t you ever made these before??”
They came out exactly the way I wanted them to. Buttery, crumbly but still held together, the holiday spices in the base perfectly offset by tart cranberry filling. An infinitely better version of those raspberry bars (which I may also make my own version of someday).
I saved some of the bars for the ultimate tasting committee — my parents. They came into town for Thanksgiving, and Brian and I were lucky enough to host them along with his parents and sister in our little apartment. The day before Thanksgiving, though, we ordered pizza and had these cranberry crumb bars for dessert.
There was a moment of silence as everyone took their first bites (warmed, with ice cream over top, of course). Then: “these are absolutely amazing.”
That, my friends, was all I needed to hear. I hope you make and love these too!
Cranberry Crumb Bars
For the filling:
- 2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
- 1/2 cup apple cider
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
For the crumb base and topping:
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- Pinch of allspice
- Pinch of cloves
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter cold and cubed (1 stick)
- 1 egg yolk from 1 large egg; discard the white
For the filling:
- In a medium saucepan, stir together the cranberries, apple cider, sugar, and cornstarch. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens and cranberries break down, about 5 minutes.
- Remove from heat and let cool while you make the crumb mixture.
For the crumb base and topping:
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease an 8×8 inch square pan, or line it with parchment paper. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, flour, salt, baking powder, and spices.
- Add cold butter to the bowl and cut it into the flour mixture using a pastry cutter, a fork, or my favorite method, your fingertips. Stop when the mixture resembles wet sand. There may be some larger pea-sized butter pieces, and that’s ok.
- Mix in the egg yolk until the entire mixture is moistened. You may have to use your hands to fully incorporate it.
- Pour half the crumb mixture into the prepared pan, and press into an even flat layer with your hands. Make sure it is compact and reaches the edges of the pan.
- Pour the cooled filling over the base crumb layer, spreading it evenly to the edges of the pan. Sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture evenly over top.
- Bake for 35-37 minutes, until topping is lightly browned and filling is bubbling. Let cool completely before cutting into squares and serving.
Thank you to Imperfect Produce for sending me the cranberries I used in this recipe. All opinions are my own! If you want to sign up for your own Imperfect Produce deliveries, you can get 50% off your first box with code “katiebird”!