While visiting Iceland earlier this year, I became slightly obsessed with hjónabandssæla, a jammy fruit bar that seemed to turn up in every coffee shop I popped into. Perhaps owing to that casual cafe setting, the versions I encountered were very low-key affairs, much like a bar cookie or coffee cake, although fancier versions abound if you search online.
As my encounters with this pastry have been so limited and fleeting (a half dozen samples over the course of a week), my interest in this Nordic treat has less to do with authenticity than finding a culinary touchstone—a bite of something sweet to remind me of a lovely trip. And besides, what does an American pastry chef living in Kentucky have to say about true Icelandic cuisine?
Which is to say, while these fruit bars are inspired by my experience with hjónabandssæla, they're rooted in my own understanding of American streusel bars, crumb cakes, and bar cookies. I take something of an impressionist approach to flavor, rather than anything even approaching hyperrealism. So for me, copycat recipes (whether a homemade Oreo or a Levain-style chocolate chip cookie) avoid literal replication of an existing formula and focus on re-creating an experience.
These bar cookies are no exception, although you don't have to have fond memories of Icelandic dessert to appreciate them. They're rich and hearty, loaded with butter and oatmeal, but tempered by the zip of fresh fruit or jam and a pinch of spice. The hjónabandssæla I tasted were, without exception, blueberry, but I've been reliably informed that rhubarb jam is by far the more common filling.
Happily, these bar cookies are easy to customize with whatever fresh fruit or jam you like!
The recipe starts with a wonderfully easy and versatile dough that serves as both the crust and streusel topping for the bars—a mixture of rolled oats, all-purpose flour, light brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, along with unsalted butter and an egg. Plus fruit, of course, whether something fresh from the farmers market or a grocery store, or in the form of jam, marmalade, or jelly (more on that in a bit).
The first step is to thoroughly homogenize all of the dry ingredients, a mix that can be bagged and held in the pantry if you're looking for a make-ahead step. Next, add the cold, cubed butter and work it into the dough. I start by tossing the cubes in the flour, then smashing each one into a flat sheet. From there, I keep smashing and rubbing until the butter almost disappears into the dry mix, with a few big flakes visible here and there. The final step is to crack in an egg, and stir to moisten the dough.
Transfer 16 ounces (455g), or about two-thirds of the dough, to a parchment-lined 8-inch square anodized aluminum pan *, and gently press into an even layer. This step is a bit of a balancing act; if the dough isn't pressed into a cohesive sheet, the finished bars won't have much structure and may crumble apart (no problem, just grab a fork), but if the dough is excessively compressed, the bottom layer will be thin and dense. Ultimately, the idea is to be firm but gentle, avoiding both aggressive smashing and timid patting.
*If you don't have a pan this size, the most elegant solution would be to make a double batch in a 9- by 13-inch aluminum pan instead. This new size will preserve the proportions of the original bars, keeping them nice and thick. This recipe can be adjusted to fit whatever pan you have, see our guide to scaling cakes, but all but whole number increments will result in fractions of an egg, which many bakers find troublesome.
Finally, scatter a layer of fresh fruit over the bottom layer. There's a lot of wiggle room for using different types of fruit, but do stick to those that are relatively soft and juicy, such as pitted cherries, peeled and diced peaches, or whole raspberries, rather than comparatively firm or dry fruits such as apple or banana.
Season the fruit with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt; this will bring out the best in the fruit's own flavor, and temper its natural sweetness. Some fruits may require more or less than others, depending on how sweet or mild they may be, but in virtually all instances a bit of lemon and salt will improve the fruit flavor considerably.
Finally, crumble the remaining dough over the fruit and bake at 350°F (176°C) until firm to the touch and golden brown. The timing of this step can vary considerably, depending on the exact distribution of dough and streusel, as well as the variable moisture content and exposed surface area of the fruit, whether whole blackberries or sliced strawberries.
The fresh fruit filling can also be replaced with jam, jelly, or marmalade instead, then topped with streusel and baked the same way. It may seem like the jam layer is quite thin, but because it's cooked down with sugar, this scant amount will pack quite a punch! As with the fresh fruit layer, season the jam with a bit of lemon juice and salt before topping with streusel.
No matter if you're using fresh fruit or jam, do give the bars plenty of time to cool before portioning them out, as the hot fruit or jam will make the bars quite squishy and soft. The bars will only develop structure after cooling to room temperature, so be patient!
Lining the pan with parchment will not only make clean-up a lot easier by keeping jammy residue off the pan, it will make the bar cookies easy to lift out and transfer to a cutting board. This will allow for cleaner cuts, and will protect the bottom of your pan from the nicks and scratches that result from trying to cut bar cookies in the pan.
I don't particularly consider these fruit bars to be a proper dessert, although they certainly could be if served à la mode or with a dollop of whipped cream (I've done so before on my Instagram). Rather, I think of them as a teacake or coffee cake, something I can make a day in advance to serve as a midafternoon snack with friends or family.
That said, my favorite way to serve them is for breakfast, with a steaming mug of coffee to offset their fruity sweetness. Something about the combination of rolled oats and fruit just gives me major brunch vibes, and they're certainly no richer or sweeter than a muffin or a cinnamon bun, so why not?
Whether you've got a beautiful haul of seasonal fruit from the farmers market, a jar of store-bought jam, or a pint of homemade jelly from last season, these bar cookies are a fun and easy way to make the most of what you have on hand—even if that doesn't include a drop of Nordic nostalgia.