Recipe: Cranberry Curd Bars with Walnut Shortbread Crust

Here's one last recipe to squeeze into your Thanksgiving line-up! Tangy-sweet cranberry curd meets buttery walnut shortbread for a twist on the classic lemon bar. A dash of cinnamon ties it all together. And don't worry - this whole recipe comes together in about an hour, making it an excellent last-minute treat for Thanksgiving or any other special dinner this fall.
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I started out wanting to make this recipe with straight cranberry juice. I thought this would be an easier approach, plus then I could make the recipe at times of the year when fresh cranberries aren't available.

But do you know how hard it is to find 100% cranberry juice? Very hard. It turns out that most "100%" cranberry juices are actually a blend of cranberry, apple, and grape, which is then further diluted with water. In the end, it came down to buying a jug of organic "real" cranberry juice for $8 or making it from scratch from fresh cranberries for $1.50, and the fresh cranberries won hands down.

But the good news is that cooking fresh cranberries is far easier than you might think - or at least, it was easier than I had thought. You just combine about three cups of fresh berries with a half cup of water and let this simmer for about five minutes. The cranberries pop open and soften into a puree. (They do literally pop, so don't be startled!) Once strained of skins and seeds, this puree becomes the base for the curd in this recipe.

It's hard to keep from spooning the curd straight from the bowl. In fact, if you'd like to use it as a spread on your morning toast, just cook it a little longer until it becomes jammy and wonderful.

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Cranberry Curd Bars with Walnut Shortbread Crust

Makes roughly 24 squares

For the Crust:
1 cup (4.5 ounces) walnut pieces
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (3 ounces) confectioner sugar, tamped lightly down and leveled off
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened and cut into tablespoon pieces

For the Cranberry Curd:
12 ounces (about 3 cups) fresh or frozen cranberries (see note below)
1/2 cup water
1 cup (8 ounces) granulated sugar
4 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons lemon juice (from 1/2 of a lemon)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened and cut into tablespoon pieces
Powdered sugar for dusting
Candied citrus zest (optional - see here for a tutorial, and spiral the pieces around toothpicks as they dry to get them to curl)

Prepare the crust:

Line a 9x13 baking pan with parchment, as described in this tutorial.

Place the nuts in the bowl of a food processor and coarsely grind, about 15 one-second pulses. Add the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and salt, and pulse until finely ground, about 10 additional one-second pulses. Sprinkle the chunks of butter over the top of the flour-nut mix and pulse until the mixture holds together when compressed in your palm, another 20-25 one-second pulses. (See below for preparing the crust without a food processor.)

Press the crust mix into the baking dish, making it as even as possible. Freeze for 30-60 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F. Remove the crust from the freezer and bake for 20-25 minutes, until beginning to color around the edges.

While the crust is baking, prepare the cranberry curd:

Place the cranberries and water in a medium-sized sauce pot over medium-high heat and stir. Continue cooking and stirring occasionally until all the cranberries have popped and become mushy, about 5 minutes. Pour them into a fine-meshed strainer set over a medium-sized mixing bowl and press the cranberry puree through using a spatula. Allow the puree to cool to room temperature. Discard the cranberry skins and clean the strainer for use in the next step.

To the bowl with the cranberry puree, add the sugar, eggs and yolks, lemon juice and salt (reserving the butter for now). Stir thoroughly until the mixture is even.

Return the cranberry mixture to the saucepan and set the burner to medium. Stir the curd continuously, making sure to scrape the bottom and corners of the pan. Cook until the curd starts to thicken, coats the back of a spoon, and registers about 150° on an instant-read thermometer (there's some wiggle-room, so don't fret about being exact). This should take 10-12 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the butter all at once. Stir until the butter has completely melted, then pour the curd through the strainer into a clean bowl.

Pour the warm cranberry curd onto the walnut crust. Bake at 350° for 10-15 minutes, until the curd has set but still jiggles slightly in the center. Cool completely and refrigerate before cutting.

To cut the squares, lift them from the pan using the parchment paper as handles. Trim off the sides to make even edges if desired. Dust the tops of the bars with powdered sugar just before serving and use a sharp knife to cut them into squares. The powdered sugar will melt into the cranberry curd, making sweet glaze.

Keep refrigerated.

Notes:

Substitute for Fresh Cranberries - Substitute 3/4 cup cranberry juice and 1/4 cup lemon juice for cranberry puree if fresh cranberries can't be found. Watch the bars carefully while baking, and extend the baking time as needed until the bars are set around the edges but still jiggly in the center.

To Prepare Crust Without a Food Processor - Chop the nuts as finely as possible with a chef's knife. Combine with the dry ingredients and the cut or rub in the butter, as you would for a pie crust, until the mixture resembles coarse corn meal. Press into the pan and bake as directed.

To Make the Cranberry Curd Less Sweet - As it is, this curd is definitely on the sweet side of tart, but still tastes distinctly "cranberry." If you really love the super tart taste of cranberries and would prefer the curd to be less sweet, try reducing the sugar in the curd recipe to as little as 1/2 cup.

To Make Cranberry Curd By Itself - To make the cranberry curd into a spread for toast, continue cooking it in the saucepan until it reaches an internal temperature of about 170°. Mix in the butter, strain and cool. Store curd in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.

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Related: Thanksgiving Sides: 5 Alternatives to Cranberry Relish

(Images: Emma Christensen)

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