On the subject of picnics, my late mother could be relied upon for two contributions.
The first was her potato salad, which will forever be the one that I measure against all others.
The second was a well-worn 9- by 13-inch baking pan, the kind with a removable cover. Hers was embossed with “From the Kitchen of Judy Nelson,” a long-ago Minnesota State Fair souvenir. Whenever there was a picnic, it was inevitably filled with one of her go-to recipes: Congo Bars, a blondie-like treat riddled with shredded coconut.
Picnics, with their emphasis on uncomplicated fare, are tailor-made for bars (or, for those who want to get technical, bar cookies). But simple doesn’t mean you have to skimp on other equally important attributes, such as satisfying, imaginative and delicious. Sturdy, serve-in-the-pan bars also travel well, another picnic-friendly trait.
Brownies have long been my picnic dessert of choice. Mom frequently made a frosted, double-layer version, one that’s happily lodged in my taste memories. But those Blondie-like Congo Bars will always have a special place in my heart.
I appreciate this iteration of Blondies, from the accuracy-obsessed folks at Food52, because of the dough’s rich butterscotch notes and its easy-to-prepare formula, which skips the need for an electric mixer.
Baking at a cabin with rudimentary kitchen equipment? This recipe is a total keeper.
With Mom in mind, I’ve added coconut. You don’t have to, but I recommend that you give it a try.
Yes, you’ll need an electric mixer to pull together the Salted Vanilla Bean Shortbread Bars.
But preparing them couldn’t be easier, and the unadorned final product proves that bars can be appealing even without showy bells and whistles.
Bars that incorporate preserves belong in every time-pressed baker’s repertoire, because they include the lively color and flavor of fruits and berries without any corresponding fuss. No peeling, seeding, coring, chopping or other tedious prep chores.
Plus, they’re flexible. Don’t like raspberry? Try strawberry, or mixed berry, or peach, whatever is sitting in your pantry.
Actually, ease is key. Bars can have all the sweet, buttery appeal of cookies, but their preparation time is a fraction of the investment that cookies can sometimes require. Just spread the dough in the pan, bake, cool and slice.
That leaves a lot more time to enjoy outside at the picnic table.