I am an unabashed lover of chocolate. Still, there are other types of sweets I can appreciate, like a nice salted caramel. Sadly, caramel IS sugar, so a no-refined-sugar version of most caramel desserts is out of the question. Lately though, I've come across a few recipes using a date puree as a sort of caramel stand in. It won't work for every application, but dates are sweet, and they puree up soft and creamy, so I could see how it might work.
These bars were inspired by a caramel craving, and the fact that we had apples in the fridge and a party to go to. They're soft and gooey, and very sweet without being cloying. Just the thing for a light dessert or an after school snack.
1/3 cup (about 6) pitted medjool dates
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups (about 20) pitted medjool dates
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 tart apple
1 tsp coconut oil
a sprinkle of cinnamon
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
Start by kneading the 1/3 cup of dates into the flour. Do this by tossing the dates with the flour, then squeezing and smearing date chunks and flour between your fingers until you have a fairly homogenous mix. You can make this step quicker by mixing a little with your hands and then whizzing the flour and dates in the blender, but it can all be done by hand without too much trouble. Mix the butter in with the dates and flour, and pat the resulting dough into a 9x9 baking dish. Prick the dough all over with a fork, and bake in a 300 degree oven for 25 minutes, or until just lightly browned.
While the shortbread is baking, prepare the caramel and apples.
Core the apple and cut into uniform thin slices. Melt the coconut oil in a large frying pan over medium-low heat, then lay the apple slices in the pan in a single layer. Sprinkle the apple slices with a light dusting of cinnamon, and place a lid on the pan. Allow the apples to steam in their own juices for about 8 minutes, then flip the slices and put the lid back on to allow them to steam for about 8 minutes more. When done, remove from heat and set aside for assembly.
For the caramel, place the remaining dates, butter, and milk in a microwave safe bowl and heat in 30 second increments, stirring each time, until the butter is melted and the milk is steaming. Puree the date mixture with an immersion blender (or transfer to a conventional blender if that's all you have). When smooth, stir in the vanilla and salt.
Finally, assemble the bars by spreading a small amount of caramel onto the baked shortbread (this acts as a glue to hold the apples in place). Cover the bars with an even layer of apple slices, then spread the rest of the caramel. Top the bars with the chopped walnuts, and press them in firmly to avoid runaways when the bars are cut.