Growing up, I ate a lot of stewed squash. Textureless, tasting mostly of butter and salt, stewed squash barely belies its origins as a smooth, crisp summer vegetable. And it was only...
For a long time, I've struggled with my sweet tooth. As you may have noticed, I'm the baker 'round these parts, and the reason I love baking is because I love sweet things. Not syrupy sweet or cream-filled-cupcake sweet, but sweet nonetheless. It may, then, come as a small surprise that I also love healthy foods. Greens, fruits, root vegetables, whole grains, legumes...the works. I don't love them because they're supposed to be good for me or because I feel somehow that these foods redeem my love of sweets. I love them because they taste good--in fact, unlike so many "unhealthy" processed foods, they taste like real food. Like something a human being could eat, digest, and benefit from.
I also like them because they give me energy--sustained and sustainable energy, unlike the rush you get after having chocolate cake or caffeine. I spend most of my days in the kitchen, on my feet, flitting from task to task, and while this isn't anything like participating in a triathlon, it requires a good store of energy resources. You're not going to get that kind of energy from sugar.
However, I do think that sweets can be part of a healthy, balanced diet. In fact, punctuating my dinner with a small taste of something decadent--whether it's a couple squares of dark chocolate or a cookie--signals to my body that I'm finished eating for the day and prevents me from going back to the kitchen for second helpings or--heaven help us--a midnight snack.
With this thinking in mind, I keep a small stash of tasty after-dinner treats. My favorite sweets are eaten out of hand and can be portioned into small pieces. Most recently, I have been taken with these dense chocolate bars scented with cinnamon and cardamom. They're flavorful and rich enough to satisfy with one bite, they have marvelous keeping ability, and they're simple and sturdy.
The recipe was given to me by a dear friend who recalls them tasting of cardamom, but when she unearthed the recipe, found that the spice she remembers was nutmeg. The cardamom seed was planted, though, and it really makes all the difference. I also transformed the recipe from one for cookies into one that makes bars. I like the ease of patting the dough into a pan rather than rolling it into logs, refrigerating, and cutting into cookies. I added apricots for a bright, tart jolt of flavor, but you might want to use dried cranberries, cherries, or another fruit to accent the chocolate. Also consider cutting the bars and freezing them, as they keep very well.
Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Lightly grease a 9x13" baking pan. Cream in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer, until light and fluffy:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled*
Add and mix in just until blended:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup finely chopped dried apricots
The dough will be very crumbly. Press the dough evenly into the greased baking pan and bake until dry to the touch, about 25 to 30 minutes.
Allow to cool completely on a rack before cutting into bars. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
*To melt chocolate on the stovetop, use a double boiler or a heatproof bowl set in a pan of simmering water. Stir the chocolate frequently to prevent scorching. Alternatively, melt the chocolate in a microwave by heating it in 30-second bursts, stirring between each burst, until melted.