Every year, I spend my post-Thanksgiving weekend trying to gather my thoughts about my personal holiday baking lineup. And like most people, those initial thoughts always take a nostalgic turn before checking out the latest cookbook or magazine.
This year, my mother's cherry coconut bars popped into my head, and I mounted a search for her battered copy of the recipe. "Cheery Cherry Coconut Bars," as typed onto the index card, were a part of her Christmas repertoire every year without fail, and making them was an extra-special occasion for me because of one precious ingredient: maraschino cherries.
Getting the Coveted Maraschino Cherries
I don't know about you, but in my childhood days the chances of getting a maraschino cherry in my mouth were too few and far between. The coveted Shirley Temple required a rare visit to a restaurant, along with the heavy toll of white leotards, a goofy dress and sitting still in an uncomfortable chair. Once in a blue moon my mom would indulge in a straight up Manhattan cocktail before dinner, but the cherry was always ruined by all of that nasty whiskey.
But during her holiday baking session, Mom would bestow upon me the all-important task of carefully cutting an entire jar of maraschino cherries into quarters for this recipe. Oh joy! Not only did I get to secretly sneak a cherry or two when she wasn't looking, I got to use a knife! Yeah, so what if it was a plastic butter knife, it was still a knife.
I think this recipe made its debut in the late 1950s or early 1960s and quickly made its way through the ladies magazines, because it seems to be a popular favorite in the heirloom cookie category. My mom did switch it up a bit by using pecans instead of walnuts. Either nut will work just fine, but I'm partial to the walnuts.
These moist and tender squares are great keepers, which make them perfect for giving or a do-ahead party menu. They look just as pretty and festive naked or with a subtle dusting of confectioner's sugar. Best of all, they come together quickly and easily—you can make them entirely with your hands, two bowls, and a whisk. Be sure to allow them to cool completely before cutting them with a very sharp knife to prevent jagged edges.
I have no urge to substitute fancier ingredients in this recipe; I'll never reach for desiccated coconut or dried sour cherries, and there is no need for chocolate to make an appearance here. Any deviations would feel like a betrayal on my part. Bring on the angel flake and red dye #2. But these days I draw the line at the plastic butter knife.
About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States sharing recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats.
- For the Pastry:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
- 1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) cold butter, cut in even sized pieces
- For the Filling:
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
- 1/2 cup quartered maraschino cherries
- 1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
In a large bowl, combine flour and confectioners' sugar. Add the butter pieces and toss to coat, then rub the butter into the flour to form coarse, raggedy crumbs. Using lightly floured fingers, evenly press the pastry mixture into a lightly greased and floured 13 x 9-inch rectangular cake pan.
Bake the pastry layer for 10 to 12 minutes, or until it just begins to turn light golden brown at the edges.
For the filling, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla in a medium bowl. Combine flour, baking powder and salt and whisk into the egg mixture. Stir in nuts, cherries and coconut.