Blueberry Bars for Back to School! (and a MNFoodBloggers Bar Bake-off)

Yesterday was the official end of summer in my house. Back to school for both boys, and I spent the day wishing they were home again. “Seriously?”  You may ask. I spent the past several weeks anticipating the beginning of school with a certain glee, which may have bordered on unhealthy. I couldn’t wait to have peace and quiet in my house, for hours at a time. I looked forward to doing my work without interruption, sans little fingers dipping into the bowl. But, when it came to the actual day, I missed them and couldn’t wait for them to get off the bus.* Instead of pathetically staring out the window waiting, I decided to bake them some bars. Every MN kid loves bars.

For those of you from the coasts, I am referring to a layered dessert baked in a pan resembling a brownie/cookie/pie, but can be made with fruit, caramel, chocolate or anything else your pantry contains. Then they are cut into neat bars. I was first introduced to this concept when I moved to Minneapolis 18 years ago. Bars are generally served on a buffet table with lots of crock pots filled with “hot dish.” Every family has their own recipe, usually a tightly held secret, mostly kept from the neighbors.

Just a couple of weeks ago Stephanie Meyer asked me to judge a MNFoodBloggers Bar Bake-Off. It seems the quintessential task of any MN food blogger, baker or non-baking type, to create the perfect bar. What I forgot when I took on this responsibility is how many members the MNFoodBloggers has and how many bars I would have to eat in one sitting. Luckily, I was not alone in my task, Stephanie March from Mpls/St.Paul Magazine and Joy Estelle Summers from City Pages joined me. We consumed 13, or was it 16, different MN Bars. Some were traditional recipes from grandma’s kitchen and others were a daringly new take on the MN dessert. The winner was Kelli Abrahamian from with her Rosemary Apricot Bars (picture below). Her fantastic herby crust and fruit filling were my inspiration for my Blueberry Bar recipe. 

Blueberry Bars with Lemon Thyme Shortbread Crust and Lattice to WOW the neighbors!

Bottom Shortbread Cookie Crust:

1/2 cup (2 oz) confectioners’ sugar

1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour (measured with scoop and sweep)

3/4 cup (6 oz) unsalted butter

pinch salt

1 teaspoon lemon thyme, finely chopped (optional) – my kids didn’t notice it and it makes it more interesting for us adults. You can add more if you love the taste of thyme.

Blueberry Filling:

6 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely chopped

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Cream Cheese Dough for Lattice Top Crust:

8 ounces cream cheese

1/2 cup (4 oz) unsalted butter

1/2 cup (2 oz) confectioner’s sugar

2 cups (9 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour (measured with spoon and sweep)

Egg wash for top crust (1 egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water)

Sugar to sprinkle on top crust

How to make the Bar:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9 x9-inch Square Baking pan (you can make this same recipe in a 12-by-8-1/2-Inch Lasagna Baking pan, but it will come out much thinner.)

To make bottom crust:

In a Food Processor combine the confectioners’ sugar, flour, butter, salt and thyme.

Process the ingredients until it forms dough. If you are using cold butter this may take a few minutes. (Don’t wash the bowl, we will use it again for the cream cheese dough.)

Press the dough into the prepared pan. Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the top and then rub it smooth.

Bake on the middle rack for about 2o minutes, just until it is light gold. Allow the crust to cool while you prepare the cream cheese dough and filling.

In the food processor cream together the cream cheese, butter and confectioners’ sugar.

Add the flour and pulse the dough until it comes together in a soft ball. Divide the ball in two discs and refrigerate for about one hour.

While the dough is chilling prepare the blueberries: In a sauce pan add the blueberries and ginger. In a small bowl whisk together the sugar and cornstarch, then add it to the blueberries. Cook over low heat until the blueberries thicken and reduce by about half.

When you are done cooking them you will have about 2 1/2 cups of blueberry filling. Set aside while you prepare the lattice.

Once the cream cheese dough is chilled, roll it out on a well floured surface and then use a Pastry Wheel to create strips. You can make them thick of thin, depending on what look you are going for. These strips are about 1/2-inch thick.

Lay out half the strips on a sheet of parchment, set on a cookie sheet, with some space between the strips.

Fold up every other strip and lay one of the remaining strips across those still laid flat.

Repeat with the next rows until you reach the bottom.

Start back at the middle and do the same on the other side.

Place the cookie sheet with lattice in the freezer to stiffen.

Pour the blueberry filling over the thyme shorbread crust and let it sit while you wait for the lattice to chill.

Remove the lattice from the freezer and make sure it is the right size. This is just done by eyeballing it next to the pan, then use the pastry wheel to trim excess. You can always trim more when you place it on the filling. Quickly brush the lattice with the egg wash.

Carefully lift the lattice with a wide spatula and your hands. If the lattice is chilled well enough this should be a very easy task. If it is still too soft return it to the freezer until it is harder. Trim any excess. Sprinkle with the sugar.

Bake for about 35 to 40 minutes or until the crust is golden and filling bubbling.

Stephanie March (left) and Joy Estelle Summers (far right) unveiling the bars to be consumed at the MNFoodBloggers Bar Bake-Off. I hope this becomes an annual event!

Here is the fabulous MN Bars made by Kelli Abrahamian. My pictures can not do them justice, so visit her site to get the recipe.

* Update: Now that it is the second day of school, I am thrilled to have the boys gone for the day! 😉

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