Preheat oven to 325 degrees F., rack in the middle position.

The Crust and Topping:
2 cups (4 sticks, 16 ounces, 1 pound) salted butter softened to room temperature
1 cup white (granulated) sugar
1 and 1⁄2 cups powdered (confectioners) sugar 2 Tablespoons vanilla extract
4 cups all-purpose flour (pack it down in the cup when you measure it)

 The Caramel Filling:

14-ounce bag (approximately 50 pieces) square Kraft caramels, individually wrapped (If the kids help you unwrap the caramels, better buy 2 bags!)
1⁄3 cup whipping cream
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 Tablespoon sea or Kosher salt (the coarse-ground kind)

 Before you begin to make the crust and filling, spray a 9-inch by 13-inch cake pan with Pam or another nonstick baking spray.

Hannah’s 1st Note: This crust and filling is a lot easier to make with an electric mixer. You can do it by hand, but it will take some muscle.

Combine the butter, white sugar, and powdered sugar in a large bowl or in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat at MEDIUM speed until the mixture is light and creamy.

Add the vanilla extract. Mix it in until it is thoroughly combined.

Add the flour in half-cup increments, beating at LOW speed after each addition. Beat until everything is combined.

Hannah’s 2nd Note: When you’ve mixed in the flour, the resulting sweet dough will be soft. Don’t worry. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

With impeccably clean hands, press approximately one- third of the sweet dough into the bottom of your prepared cake pan. This will form a bottom crust. Press it all the way out to the edges of the pan, as evenly as you can, to cover the entire bottom.

Wrap the remaining sweet dough in plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator (or out on the back porch if it’s winter and you live in Minnesota) to chill.

Bake your bottom crust at 325 degrees F., for approximately 20 minutes or until the edges are beginning to turn a pale golden brown color.

While the crust is baking, unwrap your caramels and place them in a microwave-safe bowl on the counter. (Count them as you go to make sure that there are 50 caramels.)

When the edges of your crust have turned pale golden brown, remove the pan from the oven, but DON’T SHUT OFF THE OVEN! Set the pan with your baked crust on a cold stovetop burner or a wire rack to cool. It should cool approximately 15 minutes.

While your crust is cooling, sit down and have a cup of coffee. You need the rest after unwrapping all those caramels.

Hannah’s 3rd Note: If the kids have helped you unwrap the caramels, you’d better count them to make sure there are still 50 of them in the bowl. If not, unwrap enough to make up the difference from that 2nd bag of caramels you bought, just in case the inevitable happened.

After your crust has cooled approximately 15 minutes, get out the whipping cream and pour 1⁄3 cup over the un- wrapped caramels in your microwave-safe bowl.

Place the bowl in the microwave and heat the caramels and cream for 1 minute on HIGH power. Let the bowl sit in the microwave for an additional minute and then try to stir the caramel and cream mixture smooth with a heat resistant spatula or a wooden spoon. If you cannot stir it smooth, heat it for an additional 20 seconds on HIGH power, let it sit in the microwave for an equal length of time, and then try again. Repeat as often as necessary alternating heating and standing times until you can achieve a smooth mixture.

Once your caramel mixture is melted, add the half- teaspoon vanilla extract and stir until smooth. DO NOT ADD THE SALT YET.

Pour the caramel, cream, and vanilla mixture over the baked crust in the pan as evenly as you can.

Here comes the salt! Sprinkle the Tablespoon of sea salt or Kosher salt over the caramel layer in the pan.

Take the remaining sweet dough out of the refrigerator and unwrap it. It has been refrigerated for 35 minutes or more and it should be thoroughly chilled.

With your impeccably clean fingers, crumble the dough over the caramel layer as evenly as you can. Leave a little space between the crumbles, so the caramel sauce can bubble through (this will not change the taste, but it will look very pretty.)

Return the pan to the oven and bake for 25 to 30 additional minutes, or until the caramel layer is bubbly and the crumble is light golden brown.

Hannah’s 4th Note: Your pan of Salted Caramel Bar Cookies will smell so heavenly, you’ll want to cut it into squares and eat one immediately. Resist that urge! The bubbly hot caramel will burn your mouth. Instead, eat one of your extra caramels and let the bar cookies cool on a cold stovetop burner or a wire rack until they reach room temperature. Alternatively, if you live in Minnesota and it’s winter, you can move the wire rack to a table on the back porch and set the bar cookie pan out there to cool.

When your Salted Caramel Bar Cookies are completely cool, cut them into brownie-size pieces, place them on a pretty plate, and serve them to your guests.

Yield: A cake pan full of brownie-sized Salted Caramel Bar Cookie delights!

If you’ve invited Mother, you’d better have a large plate of these bar cookies. I’ve seen her eat six at a sitting!

 

A romantic seven-day cruise is the perfect start to bakery owner Hannah Swensen’s marriage. However, with a murder mystery heating up in Lake Eden, Minnesota, it seems the newlywed’s homecoming won’t be as sweet as anticipated . . .

After an extravagant honeymoon, Hannah’s eager to settle down in Lake Eden and turn domestic daydreams into reality. But when her mother’s neighbor is discovered murdered in the condo downstairs, reality becomes a nightmarish investigation. Victoria Bascomb, once a renowned stage actress, was active in the theater community during her brief appearance in town . . . and made throngs of enemies along the way. Did a random intruder murder the woman as police claim, or was a deadlier scheme at play? As Hannah peels through countless suspects and some new troubles of her own, solving this crime—and living to tell about it—might prove trickier than mixing up the ultimate banana cream pie . . .

Features Over a Dozen Cookie and Dessert Recipes from The Cookie Jar!