The sweet treat that is in the shape of a bar is omnipresent, omnificent and omnicompetent for a bunch of reasons.
It's a one-pan operation, easy to make, straightforward and involves minimal prep time. And unlike cookies, they don't need to be portioned, scooped out onto a pan and then baked in batches. "Everything goes into the oven at once, and you are done," says food blogger (The Next Door Bake) and cookbook author (Real Sweet) Shauna Server.
They are easy to pack and don't require special or expensive containers. They also travel well.
"It requires no fussing when it comes to serving because the topping is thick and won't drip, and it is easily sliceable," says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor of the PBS show America's Test Kitchen. A bar can be handheld, and so does not require a fork or spoon. Nor does it require a plate — a single napkin will suffice — and they can be eaten on the run.
It can be sliced larger or smaller to accommodate any crowd size, Davison says, and they would be acceptable.
But although the dessert bar has simplicity written all over it, things get long-winded when it comes to a definition.
The obvious classic shape is what defines a bar for Jennifer McHenry, author of Quick-Shop-&-Prep 5 Ingredient Baking (Page Street Publishing Co.; $19.99). Besides that, "a bar needs to have a soft texture, even if there's a bit of crunch on the top," says McHenry, who also writes the blog Bake or Break.
Davison says she would define bars by their rectangular shape, and that they are baked in rectangle or square pans. But she then adds that they could be cut in the shape of squares or diamonds, and don't necessarily have to be baked.
In cookbooks and food blogs, bars often share the chapter with brownies, which are considered the ultimate bar. But since brownies often overshadow other bars, we have left them for another conversation at another time.
Dessert bars could be chewy, fruity, nutty or chocolaty, and come in lots of varieties — cookie dough bars; blondies, a.k.a. white brownies, which are thick and iconic with their crusty edges and chewy insides; cheesecake bars; fruit bars such as Apple Crumb Bars or Cranberry Pear Bars; fudge bars such as Oatmeal Fudge Bars or Toffee Bars; layered bars such as Chocolate-Coconut Bars or Three-Layer Raspberry Bars; and no-bake bars such as Peanut Butter Pretzel Bars or variations of Rice Krispies Treats.
The combinations are endless. Marry a crunchy sugar cookie with raisins and dried cherries, apricots and dates to get a fruit bar, or pair semisweet chocolate batter with a pecan and brown sugar topping for Chocolate Pecan Praline Bars.
And the creations seemingly have no boundaries. McHenry says she has eaten a bar made with a rosemary shortbread crust and apricot filling, flavored with honey and brandy. The final touch was a nutty crumb topping.
Transform a linzer cookie into a linzer bar by spreading raspberry or blackberry preserves over the dough, and by placing lattice strips as the final layer. Upgrade blondies with a dusting of cinnamon or clove powder for a spiced version, or spike them with some rum for a boozy flavor.
Layered bars can handle all sorts of mix-ins, from caramel nuggets to peanut butter-filled pretzels to crunchy toffee bits. They also are the platform for some heavenly combinations, such as raspberry and chocolate in Goldy's Kitchen Cookbook author Diane Mott Davidson's Bleak House Bars. For a winning layered bar photo op, Davidson recommends pairing a dark-colored bar with powdered sugar or cheesecake frosting, and a light-colored one with chocolate frosting.
Then there's the crust, which is typically made with a shortbread dough or with crushed cookies. Oats and eggs are sometimes added, but most recipes almost always have plenty of butter.
Sally Swift, co-creator and managing producer of the public radio food show, the Splendid Table, says "the malleable and forgiving crust make bars an entry-level baking project."
So even though the desserts might have a rookie quality to them, they reflect our skilled, creative baking sensibilities without losing their friendly and comforting appeal. They have indeed set a high bar.