1. Cooking

Make these Birthday Blondies for your next celebration

This week's recipe is inspired by birthdays. Mine, actually.

It was on Saturday, and, never one to pass up an opportunity to make a giant spread of food, I made myself some blondies.

My friend helped fund a salted pretzel cake from local baker Jen Jacobs, who owns Wandering Whisk Bakeshop. But I wanted to have a couple other treats available at the celebration in case we ran out of cake, or family members with dietary restrictions (or picky palates) wanted something else.

Honestly, it was really just an excuse to bake a lot of things I would never eat myself. And to bust out the sprinkles.

Blondies resemble, well, blonde brownies, but they remind me more of chocolate chip cookie dough without the chocolate chips. A dense dough sweetened with brown sugar, they hold up well to lots of festive toppings.

I made the base blondies, then experimented with two different toppers: salted caramel and crushed pretzels (to mimic the larger pretzel cake) and chocolate frosting with sprinkles.

The dough is made with olive oil instead of butter, with creates quite a gooey interior. It's balanced out by edges that are sturdy and a tad crispy — like a giant chocolate chip cookie. I made two batches of these because the first took that ratio to an extreme — the insides were barely solid, but the exterior was verging on burnt.

The second time, I tried this: a nonstick square pan, like you would use for brownies. I used glass the first time, and I think it sped up the cooking process on the outside of the blondies. And make sure you line your baking vessel with parchment paper on the bottom, which makes it much easier to remove the blondies from the pan — they'll continue to cook the longer they sit in there.

I'd also recommend starting with a cool oven, then preheating to 350 degrees. I had been using my oven all day; by the time I put the blondies in, I have a feeling the temperature was higher than 350 even though that's what it was set to.

Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the very center of the blondies. The toothpick should come out relatively clean (the olive oil may leave a little sheen, but there shouldn't be much batter on it).

If you're not one to make your own frosting, try it for this recipe. The blondie batter is a one-bowl, dump-and-stir situation that is so simple, you will have plenty of time and energy leftover for creating a homemade frosting. Something about being able to control the amount of sugar in this chocolate frosting is important here; storebought icings might be too cloying.

Same with the caramel, although caramel can be tricky. Feel free to buy a jar from the store, then simply stir in a pinch of salt before drizzling over the blondies.

These have the effect of those chocolate chip cookie cakes I always begged my parents to let me order from the mall for birthday parties. Now, with the help of sprinkles and a stand mixer, I can make my own.

Contact Michelle Stark at Follow @mstark17.

Birthday Blondies

For the blondies:

Nonstick cooking spray

2 cups flour

2 cups lightly packed dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 large eggs

For the caramel topping:

1 cup granulated sugar

6 tablespoons salted butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup pretzels

For the chocolate frosting:

1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup cocoa powder

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

A pinch of kosher salt

Sprinkles, for topping

Make the blondies: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, salt and baking powder. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vanilla and eggs. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and pour the mixture into the pan, spreading it out evenly.

Bake until the center is set; begin checking for doneness at 35 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove to the rack and cool completely.

Make the caramel topping: Heat the sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon.

Sugar will form clumps and eventually melt into a thick amber-colored liquid. Careful, it could burn quickly. Once sugar is melted, add the butter. Stir for about 2 minutes, until melted.

Carefully and slowly pour in the heavy cream while stirring. The mixture should rapidly boil. Let it boil for 1 minute.

Then remove from heat and stir in 1 teaspoon of salt. Allow to cool to room temperature. Place pretzels in a bowl and crush with your hands or a heavy glass measuring cup, until they are broken into smaller pieces. Set aside.

Make the frosting: Use an electric mixer to beat together the confectioners' sugar, butter, cocoa powder, heavy cream, vanilla and salt.

Spread the frosting on half the blondies, top with sprinkles and cut into squares. Drizzle the caramel on the other half, then sprinkle with crushed pretzels.

Makes about 12.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times; blondies adapted from Molly Yeh