My son went to sleep-away camp two weeks for the first time this summer and it was terrible. Oh, I don’t mean for him. I got the full, joyful report when we collected him the first second they let us fly through the gate on Saturday, but even the bits and pieces we’d heard sooner sounded ebullient. He was having the time of his life! But I found it agonizing. Whose idea was this? (Mine.) What was I thinking? (That he’d enjoy it.) Wasn’t he just born? (He’ll be 10 next month.) How was he leaving us already? (You literally talked him into it.) Stop using reason with me! (I am having a full blown conversation with myself.) They were two very long weeks. I was shocked by the slack created when one person slips out of the rubberband that snugs you sometimes crushingly together, and the sheer amount of angst I could pour into this void. Friends with kids in camp went on vacations, went out every night, took up tennis, cleared out their backlog of stuff that never gets done. I did some of that stuff but a tremendous lot of mentally counting the days since he had probably last brushed his teeth, wondering if he’d even unwrapped the packing seal on the sunscreen cans, joking way too many times that we’d sent the wrong kid away (acting out means you miss your brother in 4 year-old-ese, right?) and reloading the parent portal with the occasional camper photos so many times my computer thinks it’s my homepage. (Pauses to check it again. Why stop now?)
I had a chance to slip him a care package during a friend’s visiting day. Silly putty, a yoyo, some new markers, ping pong paddles, a joke book, a whoopie cushion, just the essentials, and I decided to bake something, too. And by something I mean, Hi, have we met? The person who prepared for motherhood by mastering the art of birthday cake? The person who prepared for labor and delivery by hoping to bribe the nurses into give me the best drugs sooner? No, I was not going to make any old brownies or blondies. Remember The Parent Trap? “If their date is half as good as these cookies, we’ll be sisters in no time!” This was the energy I was channeling as I folded a mosaic of salted butter caramels, crushed pretzels, and oversized chocolate chips into my usual blondies.
I took a page from my salted caramel brownies. I know making your own caramel candies just to chop them into bits to put in another baked good seems like an excess of work but this is so quick, it takes exactly 8 minutes, and then they firm up (15 minutes, tops) while you prep everything else. The result is otherworldly but look, I’m not going to convince you that you need salted caramel crushed pretzel chocolate chunk blondies in your life. You either already knew nothing would be okay until you had them the moment you read the title or no amount of me telling you that they’re unbelievable (pockets of dark caramel, embedded crunchy salted pretzels, that kind of thing), will change your mind. I am at peace with both options, but mostly because I chose the more delicious one.
Six months ago: Cauilflower and Tomato Masala with Peas
One year ago: Layered Mocha Cheesecake
Two years ago: Fried Rice with Zucchini, Tomatoes, and Parmesan
Three years ago: Chocolate Peanut Butter Icebox Cake and Burrata with Lentils and Basil Vinaigrette
Four years ago: Frozen Hot Chocolate
Five years ago: Raspberry Swirl Cheesecake and Smoky Eggplant Dip
Six years ago: Kale Salad with Pecorino and Walnuts and Rice-Stuffed Tomatoes
Seven years ago: My Favorite Brownies
Eight years ago: Tomato Salad with Crushed Croutons
Nine years ago: Raspberry Limeade Slushies and Sweet Corn Pancakes
Ten years ago: Summer Pea and Roasted Red Pepper Pasta Salad, Lobster Rolls, and Espresso Chiffon Cake with Fudge Frosting
Eleven years ago: Key Lime Meltaways, Grilled Eggplant with Caponata Salsa, and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake
Twelve years ago: Summer Bean Salad, Brownie Mosaic Cheesecake, and Plum Tartlets
Thirteen years ago: Chocolate Caramel Cheesecake
Salted Caramel Pretzel Blondies
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Flaky sea salt
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 8 tablespoons (4 ounces or 115 grams) unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup light or dark brown sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt, or 1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
- 1 cup (130 grams) all-purpose flour
- 2/3 cup dark chocolate chips or chunks
- 1/2 cup thin salted pretzels, lightly crumbled
In a medium, dry saucepan over medium heat, melt your sugar; this took me exactly 4 minutes ever single time. By the time it is mostly melted, if should be a nice deep copper color (about 300°F to 325°F, but you do not need a thermometer to get the color right at this stage) and might smoke a little too, don’t worry. Tip and swirl the pan around to help even it out and melt any remaining sugar granules.
Remove pan from heat and whisk in butter until melted, then add a couple pinches of salt and cream, whisking until combined. Return pan to the stove over medium-high heat and cook without stirring for 3 minutes more, at which point it should be between 245°F and 250°F (the “firm ball” stage). If you don’t have a thermometer, the temperature is correct when a drop that lands in cold water will hold its shape but still be sticky when pressed with your fingers. Pour this caramel on to the prepared parchment and place in the freezer until needed. It will take 10 to 15 minutes to firm enough that it can be cut into squares.
Make blondies: Heat your oven to 350°F. Butter an 8×8-inch baking pan, or line the bottom and two sides of one with parchment paper, buttering the exposed parts. Melt butter about 2/3 of the way in the bottom of a large bowl, either over a double-boiler or in the microwave. Stir to melt the remaining 1/3 — this ensures the butter doesn’t get too hot to work with. Add sugar and whisk to combine, then egg, vanilla, and sea salt. Add flour and stir just until it disappears. Scattered chocolate chips and pretzels on batter. Remove caramel from freezer and cut quickly into 1-inch squares. Scatter all but 4 to 5 over bowl. Gently fold chunky ingredients into batter and spread in prepared baking pan, smoothing the top. Place remaining caramel squares on top.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until deeply golden at edges and mostly dry on top. [For a swirlier effect, drag a toothpick through a couple of the caramels on top about 15 minutes in.] Let cool in pan for 10 minutes before lifting blondies out by their parchment sling and cooling further on a rack. Cut into small squares and simply marvel at how popular you are.
Do ahead: These keep at room temperature for 3 days, and a week or more in the fridge.
If you’d like to ship them out: Freeze them and then pack them into your most snug, airtight container with layers of parchment paper between them. Wrap the top in plastic before putting the lid on. I sometimes go one step further and wrap the whole container in foil. Pack with peanuts or another filler in a larger box and choose the fastest shipping you can.