Do you have a favorite part of Thanksgiving? If you are like me, I look forward to Turkey Day all year long just so I can eat my fill of sausage dressing on Thanksgiving Day, and have a slice of pumpkin pie for breakfast on Friday morning.
I will make pumpkin bread in the cold-weather months, but I only make pumpkin pie once-a-year for the Thanksgiving meal. Every year, I think how easy it is to make, and how good it is and that I should make it more often—but I don’t. This year, I have no regrets, I have an even better pumpkin treat that checks all the pie boxes and more.
I went to a farmer’s market a few weeks ago with a friend of mine and we bought a “pumpkin square” from a vendor. The pumpkin square had cinnamon and pecans on the top and a soft pumpkin filling on the bottom. It was good, but difficult to eat since it didn’t have any bottom crust.
But I liked the idea of a pumpkin square enough to make it my own. I decided to make shortbread “pumpkin bars” with a pecan-streusel topping in the same vein as apple-pie bars or lemon bars. It’s an easy process but you have to bake the bars in steps to make sure they come out with a crunchy top, creamy custard and buttery shortbread crust. If you are overwhelmed by the amount of steps, just make the three parts in advance and assemble them. It’s as simple as 1, 2, 3—Shortbread Crust + Filling + Topping.
Making the shortbread is the first step. I wanted the pumpkin bars to be full of warm Autumn spices, so I added a pinch of cinnamon to the shortbread and used dark brown sugar. Likewise, I used dark brown sugar in the streusel topping to achieve that rich molasses depth of flavor.
You can use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the flour, or a fork…or just use your hands. If you work fast, your hands are actually the easiest way to get the butter coated with the flour-spice-sugar mixture so that it resembles peas or (gravely) sand.
Once the crust is mixed, all you need to do is transfer it to a 9 x 13 pan and press it evenly up the sides and the bottom.
The hardest thing about shortbread is getting it out of the pan. I usually use silicone bakeware for this because it doesn’t stick, or you can just as easily use a parchment-paper sling. If you make the bars in a glass Pyrex baking dish without anything between the glass and the crust, the sides will stick to the pan.
If a parchment-paper sling sounds fussy, like an extra step that you don’t want to do, I hear you. But once the bars bake and cool, it makes it so much easier to remove from the pan that you won’t want to skip this step.
And it’s easy to make. Take 2 pieces of parchment paper that is cut for a 1/2 sheet pan—12 x 16 inches. Fold each one in half lengthwise and place them opposite ways in the 9 x 13 pan so they form a cross. Next, clip the sides so they don’t slide around. Once you have the shortbread dough in the pan, and pat the crust into place, you can remove the clips. [When the pumpkin bars have baked and cooled, remove the entire slab from the pan using the parchment paper sling as handles. Once they are out of the pan, it’s easy to cut them with a bench scraper, knife, or dough cutter into bars.]
Next, you need to pre-bake the crust until it is cooked through. Lemon bar recipes tell you that you don’t need to let the crust cool, but I think it gets soggy if you pour the filling on the hot shortbread, so even though it takes more time, I suggest cooling the crust.
While the crust cools, make the pumpkin pie filling. I’ve streamlined the recipe to use pumpkin pie spice. If you don’t have pumpkin pie spice, it’s easy to make and I am including a recipe. It’s basically all the spices—cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves—you use for pumpkin sweets mixed together.
Once the crust is cool, pour the filling in the crust and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the custard is set and you can add the streusel topping. If you put the topping on in the beginning, it will all sink to the bottom. Bake for an additional 30 minutes or so and your bars are ready. Cooling these bars takes quite a while and you will have to be patient. I like to bake them, let them cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate, and cut them next day.
Once I am ready to cut the bars, I cut them in individual squares and wrap them individually before storing in the refrigerator.
These pumpkin bars are a great option for dessert, a snack or breakfast, and I for one are making them instead of my traditional Thanksgiving pie.
They are good straight out of the fridge, but even better with the chill off. When they warm up, you can taste all the spices and appreciate the different textures and flavor in each of the three layers. Store in the refrigerator and take out an hour or so before you want to eat them for maximum pumpkin-ness and a softer crust!
Pumpkin Bars with Pecan-Streusel Topping
These pumpkin bars are a great option for dessert or a snack, and no one would hate it if they replaced the Thanksgiving pie! They are good straight out of the fridge but even better with the chill off. Store in the refrigerator and take out about an hour before you want to eat them for maximum flavor and a softer crust.
Makes about 12 bars
2 sticks unsalted butter, cold
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
Pinch of cinnamon
1 can (15 oz) 100% pure pumpkin—not pumpkin pie filling
1 can (12 fl. oz) Evaporated Milk
¾ cup granulated white sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup regular or quick-cooking oatmeal (not instant)
1⁄2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, cut into small pieces
Preheat the oven to 400˚F and position racks in the center of the oven.
Make the Shortbread: Cut butter into ½ -inch pieces. Using a hand-held pastry cutter or [gloved] hands, mix all ingredients until mixture begins to form small lumps. If using your fingers to mash the butter, work fast so that the butter stays cold. You don’t want the heat of your hands to melt the butter.
Use a silicone baking pan or make a parchment sling for a glass or ceramic pan: take 2 pieces of Parchment paper that is cut for a 1/2 sheet pan. Fold each one in half lengthwise and place them opposite ways in the 9 x 13 pan so they form a cross. I clip the sides so they don’t slide around. Once you have the shortbread dough in the pan, and pat the crust into place, you can remove the clips. This way when the pumpkin bars have cooled, you can take the entire slab out and cut them with a bench scraper, knife or dough cutter.
Sprinkle dough evenly into a rectangular 13 by 9 by 2-inch baking pan and using your fingers or a metal spatula, press firmly and evenly onto bottom and up the sides of the pan to form an even layer of shortbread.
Prick all over with a fork. Bake shortbread in middle of oven until golden, about 25 minutes. While shortbread is baking, prepare the filling and the topping.
Make the Filling: Combine pumpkin, evaporated milk, granulated sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice and salt in medium bowl; mix well.
Make the Streusel: Mix all the ingredients except the butter and pecans. Work in the butter with a blending fork until the mixture resembles large, coarse bread crumbs. Add pecans and mix well. Set aside.
Reduce heat in the oven to 350˚F
Bake shortbread for 20-25 minutes or until lightly brown. Let cool on a wire rack. Pour pumpkin filling into cooled shortbread and bake for 30 minutes or until set.
Remove from oven and top with streusel topping. Place back into the oven and bake for 20 to 40 more minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean—my pumpkin bars took 70 minutes to bake.
Cool on wire rack and refrigerate once cool.
To cut into squares, remove the whole slab of pumpkin bars and cut into desired size.
Pumpkin Pie Spice
Make this and keep it on hand for pies, breads even oatmeal!
2 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cloves
Mix all spices together and store in a sealed jar.