Monday, November 7, 2011

Kabocha Squash {or Pumpkin} Bars with a Hazelnut Shortbread Crust

Monday mornings are one of my favorite times of the week.  It sounds crazy, I know.  Who likes Mondays?  But ever since I started regularly posting on Mondays, I have come to look forward to them.  Almost as a reward for having survived the weekend.  So I grab a mug of the world's best tea spiked with vanilla sugar (Mariage Freres's Marco Polo tea from France which I discovered at Canlis in Seattle a year ago) and settle in to share my newest favorite recipes.
This recipe has had me excited all weekend.  I made these bars for my brother and sister in law's visit and we took them to a friend's house for cocktails, had them for dessert the next night and even breakfast Sunday morning.  I am completely smitten.  In love.  Over the moon.  And everyone else who tasted them was in agreement.  They are the best parts of pumpkin pie and a bar cookie all rolled into one.
See that funny looking green squash?  That's a kobacha squash.  I just happened to get one in my CSA box last week and had no idea what to do with it.  A quick peek at the internet led to me many savory dishes made with this pumpkin cousin, but also a description of the flavor of a kabocha as similar to pumpkin but sweeter and more delicate.  This made me think I could use it like pumpkin in a sweet recipe too. And let's face it, I'll pick sweet over savory any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
My first step was to roast and puree the squash.  So I cut it up (not an easy task, by the way), scooped out the seeds and roasted it for about an hour.  Oh my, the aroma that came from my kitchen... it was heavenly.  Once it cooled enough to handle, I scooped out the flesh and whizzed it up in the food processor.  A kabocha squash gives off MUCH less water than a pumpkin when you roast it, which I discovered as the bits were flying around in my food processor but not becoming a smooth puree.  Small additions of water (probably almost a cup in total) helped the process along and finally I got a beautiful orange puree ready to do my bidding.
I was not in the mood to get all fussy and make a traditional pumpkin pie.  Who wants to wait for pie crust to chill when you can make a quick cookie crust instead that will be sturdy enough to hold up to the filling, but sweet and crunchy too?  I chopped up some hazelnuts, pressed shortbread cookie dough over them and I  knew I was on my way to something wonderful and way easier than a pie.  Next came the filling.  I adapted my favorite pumpkin pie filling to fit the squash's flavors, popped it in the oven and a little over an hour later I was rewarded by what has become my favorite way ever to eat a squash (or pumpkin for that matter).

Kabocha Squash Bars with a Hazelnut Shortbread Crust
The crust recipe is adapted from Alice Medrich's gorgeous book, Bittersweet.

Feel free to use canned pumpkin puree in this recipe in place of the kobacha squash.  It's worth digging around in that big bin of winter squash in the supermarket to find a kobacha, though.  Wouldn't it be fun to say you did it just once?

For the crust:
1/2 cup chopped untoasted hazelnuts
1 cup plus 2 tbs all purpose flour
3 tbs sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
9 tbs melted butter

Line a 9 x 9 inch square baking pan with parchment paper.  This will help you to get the bars out when they are finished and keep the filling from sticking.  Heat your oven to 350 degrees.

Sprinkle the chopped nuts over the bottom of the pan.  In a bowl, stir together the flour and sugar.  Add the vanilla to the melted butter then stir the butter mixture into the flour.  You should end up with a buttery cookie dough which you can pull apart in clumps and press into the bottom of the pan over the nuts.    Bake the crust for 15-18 minutes, until the cookie dough is set and lightly golden at the edges.  Make the filling while the crust bakes.

For the filling:
16 ounces mascarpone cheese, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/4 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
2 cups kobocha squash (or pumpkin) puree
2 eggs

In a food processor, combine the mascarpone cheese, sugar and spices.  Blend until smooth.  Add the squash puree and pulse just until combined.  Add the eggs one at a time, blending fully.  Pour the filling mixture over the hot crust and place the pan back in the oven.  Bake for 70-75 minutes.  The filling is cooked when the center is still slightly jiggly but not watery when the pan is given a gentle wiggle.  It won't feel completely firm to the touch, a cooked custard filling will still feel wet when warm from the oven.  But it should feel "set" and not like there is uncooked batter underneath the surface.

Cool the bars completely in the pan.  Gently lift on the parchment paper to remove the bars from the pan and cut into 16 bars.  If you don't plan on eating them right away (why not, may I ask?) store the bars in the refrigerator.

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