Upper James River Water Trail

Dry Bag Dream bars

By Anne L. Desjardins

Sweet bars are part of my best childhood memories. They bring me back to a happy time when mom would take me under her wings to teach me how to bake simple treats. They might remind us of huge family gatherings, picnics and camping too. For anyone who is fond of cookies, bars are a nice alternative. They are extremely easy to make, to cook and to share with friends and family during a paddling trip. They keep for at least a week in an airtight container at room temperature and they travel well too. Bars also allow for variety and a great deal of creativity. And they are so simple to bake! A lot easier than cookies or muffins, which tend to become tough when created by less experienced cooks, who tend to over mix the preparation.

When our collective sweet tooth cries for help!
Dream bars have strong ties to recent North American history. During the great Depression, when food and money were scarce, people craved the comfort of a sweet treat from time to time. That’s how “dream bars” got their first chance. First, the crust was simply made out of flour, a bit of shortening and brown sugar. The top consisted of more brown sugar and coconut flakes. In no time, those very sweet bars became hugely popular and many new recipes were invented on the same principle, adding sweetened condensed milk, fruit filling instead of caramel; even rolled oats and Graham crackers got enrolled for the crust, while nuts and chocolate became part of many popular fillings, as well as dry fruits.

Let's double it…
Usually, when I do a batch of bars, I tend to double, if not triple the quantity in order to be able to freeze some leftovers for another day because it doesn’t take more time to do. That technique allows for variety. That way, you will find yourself with three or four different types of sweet squares in your freezer and you will have an easy snack at hand for your paddling adventures. And the nice thing is that even if I’m a less-than average baker, over the years I have learned to make scrumptious bars, some highly nutritious and health-oriented, others more like candy treats or desserts. Some are meant to be eaten for breakfast, others during mid-afternoon snacks; some make a great end to a light meal and others are the ideal travel companion, when you need to refuel quickly, with nutrient-dense ingredients. Not to mention some classics, such as lemon bars, brownies, caramel dream bars, butterscotch squares, pecan bars and apricots squares.

Here is what you need to remember when you prepare bars.

  1. Make sure your oven is working properly. Up to 15% of domestic ovens vary between 10 and 20 degrees F. from what is written on the thermometer. The right temperature is especially important for bars since they cook quickly and the bottom can burn easily. If you have a convection oven, you might need to lower its temperature by 10 degrees and the cooking time by a few minutes because they are so energy efficient.
  2. Good quality baking pans are essential because they, too, influence the cooking process. Rectangular pans (9 X 13 inches) are best when baking bars. They can be made of glass or metal.
  3. Metal wire racks are also important for cooling the bars come out of the oven. They allow air to circulate around bars in the process.
  4. It is easier to wait until the bars are completely cool before cutting into squares or rectangles. I know, I know! It is not always easy to wait that long before tasting!
  5. A good way to make sure that your favorite bars will come out of the baking pan easily is to first spread a bit of cooking spray, then to flour the pan.

Easy Bar Recipes

Butterscotch bars

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup pecans coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 350° F.
In a large saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Stir in brown sugar and mix well with an electric beater until the mixture is creamy. Add eggs one at a time and mix until frothy. Add vanilla extract. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt and keep mixing with a wooden spoon until well blended. But don’t overdo it. Remove from heat and add chopped pecans. Pour mixture into a 9 X 13 inch rectangular baking pan spread that has been prepared with cooking spray and flour. Cook for 35 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the squares comes out without sticking.

Put the baking pan on a wire rack and allow to cool completely before cutting into squares or bars.


Very lemony lemon bars

    Ingredients for the crust:
  • 3/4 cup butter at room temperature
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3 tbsp sugar

    Ingredients for the filling:

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 3 tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 350° F.
First, make the crust by creaming butter and sugar in a mixing bowl with an electric beater. Beat in flour and lemon zest. Press onto a square baking pan spread prepared with cooking spray and flour and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the edges are slightly brown.

In the meantime, prepare filling by beating the eggs, sugar, lemon juice and baking powder in a medium bowl until frothy. Pour mixture over warm crust. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until lightly brown. Remove from oven and put baking pan on a wire rack. Let cool completely before cutting into small squares. If you want, you can sprinkle those squares with confectioner’s sugar when you remove them from the oven.


Apricot, pistachio and cranberry bars

  • 1 cup + 3 tbsp butter at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup quick cooking rolled oat
  • 1 cup dry apricots, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup dry cranberries
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped unsalted pistachios
Preheat oven to 350° F.
In a large mixing bowl, using an electric beater, cream the butter with brown sugar until smooth. Add the egg and beat well. Using a wooden spoon, add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Pour into a 13 X 9 inch baking pan prepared with cooking spray and flour. Cook for 30 to 35 minutes or until brown. Remove from oven and put the baking pan on a wire rack. Let cool completely before cutting into bars.

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