FARGO — Each December presents an opportunity to revisit our youth and recapture the feelings that make the holidays so special. Food is inherently a part of this equation and often acts as the connector to those memories. This week's recipe for Joyce Family Peanut Bars has placed me right back in my teenage years, and imbued me with a wonderful dose of Christmas spirit.
Ann (nee Joyce) Johnson and I have known each other since our plaid-skirt-wearing days at Fargo Shanley High, and she is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I'll never forget when she introduced me to her family's famous peanut bars, because I thought I had died and gone to heaven. If you're a fan of the salted nut roll candy bar, or just a lover of sweet treats, then this recipe is for you.
A five-generation Christmas tradition in the Joyce family, this recipe has been passed down to Ann and her family by her father, Dr. Michael Joyce of Fargo. Dr. Joyce (Mike) began making these bars with his mother and grandmother as a boy of seven or eight, growing up in Tioga, N.D. Back then, they shelled the peanuts by hand and used a manual grinder to crush them. This was, indeed, a labor of love.
A hot milk cake forms the center of these bars, and this old-fashioned cake has a lovely, moist texture and firm, velvety crumb. Whole milk is cooked until just about boiling, then removed from heat and allowed to cool some before being added to the batter.
I asked Mike why the milk needed to be boiled if it was used when mostly cool. He wasn't sure and thought perhaps the reason could be as simple as food safety, as the milk in his grandmother's day would not have been pasteurized. After some research, I've learned that scalding the milk also provides flavor for the cake.
The cake needs to cool before moving on to the next step, and Ann advised me that she often prepares it the night before assembling the bars. Once cooled, the cake is cut into one-inch squares, which will initially appear small in size until they are coated on all sides with a luscious vanilla buttercream frosting and rolled in crushed peanuts.
Upon marrying his lovely wife, Joan, 50 years ago, Mike declared that these peanut bars would be one of the first holiday traditions they would share together, a commitment they have honored each year for the past half-century. Originally, the peanuts were unsalted, but Mike and Joan have found even better results by using salted peanuts.
While the addition of modern technology has certainly improved the cooking process, making these bars today is still something of a production, and one that is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of others, especially children.
Mike was delighted to share his family's special recipe with me, and when I recently visited with him, he said with a grin, "I am sure my mother and grandmother are smiling now, just thinking about it." I'm smiling too, knowing that my freezer is filled with these decadent and delicious peanut bars.
Joyce Family Peanut Bars
Makes about 4 dozen bars
2 cups whole milk, boiled
2 tablespoons butter
4 eggs, well beaten
2 cups sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, optional
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
2 pounds powdered sugar
⅔ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
4 to 6 cups roasted and salted peanuts, crushed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x13 pan and set aside.
In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and bubbles just begin to form around the edges of the pan. Remove from heat and let cool until just warm or lukewarm (if too hot when added to the batter, the eggs may scramble).
Use a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or a handheld mixer to mix the eggs until they are well beaten, about 1 minute on medium-low speed. Add the sugar and mix on medium speed until the mixture is pale yellow and nearly tripled in volume, at least five minutes. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.
Set your mixer on the lowest speed setting and slowly add the warm milk mixture until combined. If using vanilla, add it now. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix again on medium speed for 1 minute.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour and baking powder, then add to the batter all at once. Mix on medium-low speed just until the dry ingredients are incorporated and the batter appears smooth.
Pour batter into prepared cake pan and then firmly tap the pan several times (6-8) on the countertop to release the air bubbles — this will prevent air pockets from forming in the cake.
Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until the top is golden brown and springs back when touched with a finger. A toothpick may also be inserted into the middle of the cake to check for doneness and should come out clean with the exception of a few crumbs at the tip.
Cool cake completely before cutting into 1-inch cubes. Cake may be refrigerated for up to one week before slicing.
For the frosting:
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and use a stand or handheld mixer to whip until smooth and creamy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days. If refrigerated, bring frosting to room temperature and mix again before using.
Cut cake into 1-inch squares.
Use a knife or offset spatula to apply a layer of frosting evenly on all sides of each cake square.
Roll frosted cake square in crushed peanuts until evenly coated on all sides.
Set finished peanut bars on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.
Store bars in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days, or in the freezer. To freeze, place the bars on a parchment-lined sheet pan and freeze until hard to the touch, about an hour. Transfer to a cookie tin or other airtight container, separating layers with parchment or wax paper. May be frozen for up for up to one year. Let frozen bars sit at room temperature for at least 15-20 minutes before serving.