My Granny Neal Only Made Her Famous Maple Coconut Christmas Bars Once a Year
There were always two things on the table when we came into Granny Neal’s living room on Christmas morning: a full set of Norman Rockwell books, as if to instruct us on how that holiday was meant to look, and tins of homemade Christmas cookies. When I was little in the 1970s, I looked forward to Christmas morning with all the eagerness small kids do, but not for the reasons you may think. I liked the gifts well enough, and the twinkly lights on the tree were mesmerizing, but for me it was all about those tins of cookies.
I grew up on a commune in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, with all the austerity that implies. We raised the food we ate, inclusive of chickens, some rather nasty rams, honeybees, and vast gardens my father expertly tended. We made massive quantities of food to feed the commune and additionally sold granola and beeswax candles (made from the aforementioned beehives) at fairs and co-ops. It was an earnest lifestyle, to say the least. Raisins and carob were pawned off on me as candy, from my well-intending hippie parents. I ended up a pastry chef, so you can clearly see how I ultimately responded to their dietary restrictions. The only time of year I was permitted to eat sugar, and as much as I wanted, was at my Granny’s house on Christmas.
Granny Neal had rituals she never strayed from on that Rockwellian holiday. Every year all the kids in the house would line up at the top of the stairs until Granny, perfectly coiffed and bejeweled, slowly drank her cup of coffee. When the anticipation at the top of the stairs had reached a frenetic crescendo, she’d announce the festivities had begun and we’d slide down the banister to find presents under the tree. Her coffee, as if by magic, would become a tumbler of white wine on ice, and she’d have a cigarette elegantly balanced between her fingers, like a movie star.
I don’t recall any other occasion when my granny cooked or baked — except the dozens of Christmas cookies she’d make for that one day a year. There were decorative tins of them on every table, in every room. I would search through the layers of cookies within each tin for my favorites, digging past the Russian tea cakes and peanut butter kisses to find the shortbread cookies that had a sticky coconut topping and a rich, buttery bottom. As the day progressed, the exhaustion of post-Christmas revelry always had a way of turning things a bit melancholy, but I would hunker into the couch with a tin of her blissful cookies and savor another year of the sweetness of Christmas, because I knew the next day it was back to carob.
These cookies are a combination of my Granny’s coconut bars, which I later realized came straight from the pages of The Ladies Home Journal, and my own need to add a modern spin to her traditional bars. I browned the butter in the crust, so the cookies have a toasty, rich, nuttiness. In homage to my hippie Vermont roots, I also added a bit of pure maple syrup to the sticky coconut layer to give it a more complex flavor and hit of nostalgia. They are still very much reminiscent of the delicious layered Christmas bars my Granny made, but sometimes traditions can be added to and made anew, without losing their original magic.
My Granny has long passed, with her went the wine and cigarettes, but I was just at my dad’s house and he still has her set of Norman Rockwell books prominently displayed, and I will make these cookies in her honor.
Granny Neal’s Maple Coconut Christmas Bars
Prep time 30 minutes
Cook time 53 minutes to 1 hour
Makesabout 16 bars
- 8 tablespoons
(1 stick) salted butter
- 1/2 cup
packed brown sugar
- 1 cup
plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Generous pinch salt
For the topping:
- 1 (14-ounce) can
sweetened condensed milk
- 1/4 cup
large egg white
- 1 tablespoon
- 1 teaspoon
pumpkin pie spice (or 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon + 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg + 1/4 teaspoon ginger)
- 1/4 teaspoon
- 2 cups
flaked sweetened coconut
- 1 cup
finely chopped chocolate or mini chocolate chips
- 1 cup
chopped pecans, toasted
To make the brown butter crust:
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9-inch square baking dish with aluminum foil or parchment paper so that it goes up the sides.
Place 1 stick salted butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until it boils and turns a light golden color, 3 to 5 minutes. There will be some toasty milk solids that settle in the pan, they’re a good thing. Add 1/2 cup pakced brown sugar, 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, and a generous pinch of salt. Mix with a wooden spoon until a thick ball of dough develops.
Transfer the dough to the baking pan and use the spoon to press it into a rough, even layer. Cover with plastic wrap and use your hands to press and smooth the dough out. Remove the plastic wrap.
Bake until the crust is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Place on a wire rack to cool while you make the filling.
Make the maple coconut filling:
Stir in 1 can sweetened condensed milk, 1/4 cup maple syrup, 1 large egg white, 1 tablespoon vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice, and 1/4 teaspoon salt together in a medium bowl. Sprinkle 2 cups flaked, sweetened coconut over the crust. Sprinkle with 1 cup finely chopped chocolate or mini chocolate chips and 1 cup toasted pecans over the coconut. Pour the maple mixture over the layered fillings.
Bake until the top is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool slightly before grasping the foil or parchment and removing the slab from the pan to a wire rack. Cool completely before cutting into bars.
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to 4 days.
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