During my college semester abroad in London, I was determined to visit Austria on winter break. I am not sure where this notion came from, maybe too much Sound of Music as a kid, but I set out alone to discover whether the hills were truly alive. After a trying time in Vienna, I moved on to Salzburg, a lovely place I found charming and comforting and manageable.
I think it must have been nearing Christmas, though I don’t remember exactly when. Throughout the squares of Salzburg, vendors had set up booths selling beautifully decorated spiced cookies, in every shape and size, with colored frosting and ribbons, wrapped in cellophane and paper. I was on a tight student’s budget, having decided quite firmly against the hostel route. Not that I was staying in Salzburg’s finest establishments, mind you, but I didn’t have to share a bathroom with a bunch of anarchist pothead backpackers (this time). But those amazing cookies seemed a little dear to my wallet at the time, so I never bought one of the fancy treats. I did find however, a sort of off-brand version at what I imagine was the Austrian version of a 7-11 and grabbed that up for a song. It was a little stale, and the frosting was rock hard, but the cookie was subtly spiced, very different from the gingerbread men I’d had in the States.
At the pension (to put it poetically) where I was staying, breakfast was included, and I must say it was quite good. Hot breads with butter and jam, tea and rich hot chocolate served in a simple paneled room. In the bread basket, there were always some simple buns, studded with candied fruit. I don’t know if this is an Austrian or Salzburg specialty, or just on sale at the bakery, but they were good, and somehow sitting in that room with a warm fruity roll and a creamy mug of steaming hot chocolate, looking out the windows waiting for the von Trapps to stroll by, I felt very much like I thought I might when I set off for Austria at Waterloo Station.
Now clearly I am no expert at either the spiced cookies or Austrian pastry, but years later, I tinkered with, basically, a fruitcake blondie recipe to add some depth and spice, and in the end the whole effect reminded me of Salzburg.
Spiced Fruitcake Bars
These are that kind of Christmas cookie that fills your house with the perfect spicy holiday smell, so enjoy! The bars are dense and chewy, so consider cutting them into small squares.
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¾ cup light brown sugar, packed
½ cup honey
½ cup dark molasses
1 cup chopped mixed dried candied fruits
1 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar
3 Tablespoons milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 by 13 inch baking pan with non-stick foil or parchment paper sprayed with non-stick spray, leaving some overhang to lift the bars from the pan.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, spices, soda and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg, then add the brown sugar. Beat at medium until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the honey and the molasses. Continue beating until thoroughly combined. Add the flour mixture about ¾ of a cup at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the candied fruit and beat to mix. The batter will be very thick, so remove the bowl from the mixer and using a sturdy wooden spoon or spatula, give the batter a good stir to make sure the fruit is distributed.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and do your best to spread it around. Dampen your fingers with a little water and press the batter evenly to fill the pan (you may need to wet your fingers more than once).
Bake the bars for 15 – 20 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes our clean. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove the whole bar, using the foil or parchment overhang, and leave to cool completely.
For the Glaze:
While the bars are cooling, whisk together the glaze ingredients, making sure there are no lumps. Spread the glaze over the baked bars and leave to set, at least 15 minutes. Using a wet knife, cut into bars.
Makes 2 dozen bars