Plus margarita, French 75, paper plane, and Aperol spritz bars
Brunch, for all of its appearances in TV and movies as an elegant way for friends to connect over eggs, is so very often simple an excuse for weekend day drinking. Bloody marys, bottomless mimosas, negronis and the like are great morning drinks because they are potent enough to help cure what ails you, but not generally the kind of thing that puts you back on your heels, and they all have a certain citrusy acidic base that helps offset the rich food and keep your palate awake. I love citrus desserts with rich meals for the same reason. Sweet and sour, generally fairly light, they wake up your mouth after a heavy feed.
The lovely people of the Normandy region of France have a tradition they call the trou Normand, or the Normand Hole. Essentially, they do a half-shot of calvados, a fiery local apple brandy, in the middle of large meals, to help settle the stomach and literally to make a “hole” for more food. My family and I have added this tradition to our own large meals, especially for celebrations like New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving where the food is endless, but you don’t want to miss a mouthful.
These bars are the perfect marriage of a light citrusy dessert and a trou Normand, and as such, they are an ideal dessert for a brunch. They are not just vaguely boozy, they are actually boozy, so you should be this tall to ride this ride. There is enough of that citrus and sugar hit to feed the need for a post-prandial sweet, but they also do strangely settle down all that bacon and egg and cheese and potato you’ve likely just consumed. They are a riff on your classic lemon bar, but these go to 11, and even better, they are easily adjusted to the flavors of your favorite brunch cocktail.
I’m giving you the base recipe for Negroni Bars, because of all of the bars, I think they are the prettiest with their salmon pink color, and because negronis are our go-to brunch cocktail. But you’ll see how easy it is to make them in other versions.
For the crust:
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup confectioners' sugar, plus extra to decorate finished bars
1/4 cup cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1-inch pieces This should be at cool room temperature, not cold out of the fridge, but not smushy either. Should be cool to the touch but still require a bit of pressure to make a divot with your finger.
For the negroni filling:
4 large eggs, beaten lightly
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 tablespoon grapefruit zest
1/4 cup gin
1/4 cup sweet vermouth
1/4 cup Campari
4 dashes Angostura bitters
1 1/2 tabespoon light corn syrup
1/3 cup milk
1/8 teaspoon table salt
Preheat your oven to 350°F. Spray a 13x9-inch baking dish with baking spray and line with one sheet of parchment, folded so that it is the width of the bottom of the baking dish, and hangs over the side to create a sort of sling for removing the bars. Spray the paper.
In your food processor, pulse the flour, confectioners’ sugar, cornstarch, and salt three times just so that they are blended. Add the butter and pulse to blend, 8 to 10 good pulses, it should resemble sand, and you’ll think it won’t press down into a cohesive crust, but trust me, it will.
Sprinkle mixture evenly into the lined pan and press firmly with fingers or a spatula or the bottom of a drinking glass into an even, 1/4-inch layer over entire pan bottom and about 1/2-inch up sides. Refrigerate for 45-60 minutes. Bake until lightly golden brown, about 20-26 minutes.
Remove from the oven and reduce the oven heat to 325°F, setting aside the crust to cool slightly while you make the filling. You do want the crust still a bit warm when you add the filling.
For the filling, whisk eggs, sugar, and flour in a medium bowl, then add in the zest, booze, corn syrup, bitters, milk, and salt, whisking to blend well.
Pour the filling onto the warm crust. Bake until filling feels firm when touched lightly, about 40-45 minutes. If it just has a slight wiggle to the middle, but the top still has a wet look to it, turn the broiler on high (don’t move the pan or rack) and let it broil with the door slightly ajar for 2-3 minutes to finish drying the top.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool at least 30 minutes. Run a knife along the edges where there is no paper, and using the parchment sling, transfer the whole sheet of bars to a cutting board, and cut into serving-size bars. Sprinkle confectioners’ sugar over bars, if desired.
Note: These are legit boozy and the alcohol does not burn off during the bake, so do not feed them to children.
Swap out for your favorite cocktail:
Margarita: swap out lime zest for the grapefruit and orange, and instead of the booze, use 1/4 cup lime juice, 1/4 cup tequila and 1/4 cup triple sec or Cointreau. Eliminate the bitters. When the bars are cool, sprinkle with flaky sea salt.
French 75: swap out lemon zest for the zests, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup gin and 1/4 cup cognac for the booze. Eliminate the bitters. Garnish with lemon zest mixed with granulated sugar.
Paper Plane: swap out lemon zest for the zests, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup bourbon and 1/4 cup amaro nonino for the booze, eliminate the bitters.
Aperol Spritz: swap out 1/4 cup gin, 1/4 cup Aperol, and 1/4 cup dry white vermouth for the boozes, and orange bitters for the bitters. Garnish with orange zest mixed with granulated sugar or chopped candied orange peel.