Today feels a good day. To me, a good day doesn’t necessarily mean that everything goes my way, or that everything is perfect (and yes, I do have a mental hierarchy of what constitutes different days that could be considered “good,” yay for having a selectively analytical mind). This particular type of good day has nothing to do with anything other than me, sitting in my kitchen, and the space around me; everything seems beautiful and uniquely interesting. I find myself smiling at all the ingredients I’m using for breakfast, even though they are either splayed all over the cutting board or smeared on the counter, and being fascinated by the way my coffee swirls in its cup.

 On these days, I’m acutely aware of being human in the physical sense, and heartily enjoy the simple sensory pleasures one can very easily overlook. I just get so wrapped up in my head, what with being stressed about this and that, feeling bad about something that happened the night before, and missing people who live far away, but today I feel like I can be a girl in a kitchen, smelling her warm, delicious coffee and waiting for chocolate chip pumpkin squares to come out of the oven.

 These chocolate chip pumpkin squares, not quite blondies and not quite cake, are perfect for a good day like this because they are basically small squares of sensory overload. The squares smell like fall and brown sugar, look all orangey-pumpkin beautiful with melty chocolate chips, and, warm from the oven, melt in your mouth. I would even go so far as to say these chocolate chip pumpkin squares could turn a not-so good day around, because you can’t help but stop, smell the roses, and enjoy!

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Squares

(Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart)

Yields about 24 squares in a 9 by 13 inch pan

Notes: The original recipe calls for all-purpose instead of cake flour and granulated sugar instead of brown sugar, but I love the fine crumb of cake flour and the slight hint of molasses that come together in the finished product. Come next time, I might sprinkle chopped walnuts over the top before baking.

Ingredients:

2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice

1 teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

1 cup, or 2 sticks, unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup brown sugar, packed

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 cup pumpkin puree

1 1/2 to 2 cups semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips, or chopped chocolate

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line a 9 by 13 inch pan with parchment or greased foil, leaving a few inches overhang to pull bars out of pan once baked.

2. In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk together flour, spices, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

3. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until smooth. Add egg and vanilla, and then mix until smooth.

4. Add dry ingredients to wet and stir just until all streaks of flour disappear, taking care to scrape the bottom of the pan while stirring. Stir in chocolate chips or chopped chocolate.

5. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan and smooth top. Bake in preheated oven 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.

6. Let pumpkin squares cool completely in pan before lifting out and cutting into individual squares.

Bars can be kept at room temperature, in an airtight container, up to 3 days.

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This post begins with a warning. My roommate (bless her heart and soul) came home from work the other night with three bags of whole wheat flour and gave me full access to them. What does that mean? You’ll probably be seeing a whole bunch of recipes using whole wheat flour, on Variety Flour Thursdays and beyond. “Warning” was perhaps too strong a word. Consider this a “heads-up” then.

As much as I appreciate all flours, as they provide the basis to some of my favorite things in the entire world, whole wheat flour is definitely in my top two favorite flours to use (the other being buckwheat). Not only does using whole wheat flour make it easier for me to pretend what I’m making has some sort of health benefit other than being delicious, but it also lends a more interesting, earthy flavor. Your baked goods have a bit more oompf. There are even options to use whole wheat flour in fluffy cakes and delicate pastries – whole wheat pastry flour and even white whole wheat flour to a certain extent.

My preferred way to use whole wheat flour? Cookies. I love the chew factor and nutty flavor that whole wheat flour can give to cookies without being overpowering or ruining the texture. This week I was feeling like something extra gooey and ridiculous melty, so I decided to make a s’mores treat and substitute some whole wheat flour in for all-purpose to see what happened. Much to my delight, adding whole wheat flour to these bars was a success. However, I didn’t follow the instructions and used marshmallows instead of marshmallow fluff, even though it was clearly stated in the original recipe. I was way too lazy to go back to the store and paid for it. The bars were great, don’t get me wrong, but the marshmallows kind of evaporated (as they tend to do when baked) and left the bars with the occasional white puff and a thin layer of sweet. So, word to the wise, follow the instructions and use marshmallow fluff to get optimal gooey-ness.

S’mores Cookie Bars

(Adapted from Crepes of Wrath)

Yields one 8 inch square pan of bars, between 16 and 20 bars

Ingredients:

½ cup, or 1 stick, unsalted butter, room temperature

¼ cup light brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/3 cups all-purpose or whole wheat flour

¾ cup, about 8 whole crackers, graham cracker crumbs*

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

2 king-size milk chocolate bars, or about 1 ½ cups chopped milk chocolate

1 ½ cups marshmallow fluff (not marshmallows, as we’ve learned!)

*If you have a food processor, you can pulse the graham crackers to get crumbs. If you, like me, lack this marvelous kitchen tool, you can crumble the crackers by hand or with an appropriate kitchen tool (like a potato masher). It takes longer and you don’t get as fine a crumb, but it works!

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and either grease or line with parchment an 8 inch square baking pan. Lining with parchment is nice because you can just pull the bars out of the pan when cooled.

2. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and both sugars until light and fluffy.

3. Beat eggs and vanilla into butter mixture until fully incorporated.

4. In a smaller mixing bowl, whisk together flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder, and salt.

5. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture and stir until all ingredients are combined. Divide dough in half.

6. Press half of the dough into the bottom of pan. Next layer chocolate over dough, then marshmallow fluff over chocolate, and, finally, press remaining the half of dough on top. It’s okay if there is some marshmallow visible through pressed dough on top.

7. Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes until top is lightly browned. If corners brown too quickly, as mine did, cover edges with tin foil.

8. Let bars cool completely before cutting into squares.

Keep bars covered, at room temperature, up to three days.

Everyone has off days. You wake up in the morning and feel like you have to blink a hundred times before your eyes focus. Walking to the shower from your room, you manage to drop every single article of clothing you are carrying. You drop a sock, go to pick it up, and then manage to drop the other sock. Everything falls out of the bathroom cabinet when you open it to brush your teeth. Your breakfast is burnt beyond oblivion and there seems to be more cat hair in your tea cup than actual tea.

This then carries over to your daily activities. I made cupcakes, overfilling the cups and having to scrape cupcake tops off the tin, then trying to shove crumbs back into the papers to make it seem like I had at least ONE presentable cupcake for my efforts. I made frosting, forgetting that I halved the recipe and having to scramble to account for measurement differences. When I sat down to start my Variety Flour Thursday baketivity, things weren’t looking good. Wish I could say I was one of those people who are unflappable in the face of frustration and failure. But I’m not. And instead of stopping, taking a break, and returning in a more balanced state of mind, I sallied forth with my recipe Everything Buckwheat Bars – the recipe reminded me of a buckwheat flour blondie and I’ve been looking forward to it all week. Recipe said brown sugar would dissolve in melted butter. It didn’t. I used a 1/3 cup measure instead of a ¼ cup measure for the flours and had to TRY to salvage batter using a few tablespoons of heavy cream. Totally forgot to add the extracts. By this point in the game I was totally overwhelmed by my inability to think/read/remember/be coherent that I just threw mix-ins into the batter willy-nilly, without any regard for measurements or outside suggestions. Icing on the cake? I forgot to set the timer and didn’t realize it until I had completely forgotten what time I put the bars into the oven.

As it happens, I fell in love with baking all over again. The bars weren’t perfect, but they came out and looked, tasted, held up like bar cookies. There are some things that have the remarkable ability to withstand your carelessness, frustration, anger, and apathy. These blondie-type buckwheat bars not only withstood the whirlwind of my incompetence but then gave me a sugary, chocolately, coconutty hug, saying “I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect, and everything will be okay.”

Buckwheat Everything Bars

(Recipe adapted from Epicurious)

Yields about 12 bars in one 8 by 8 inch square pan

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons, or ¼ stick, unsalted butter
½ cup light brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Mix-in options:

1/3 cup almonds (toasted or untoasted) and/or 1/3 cup flaked coconut

¼ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips and/or ¼ cup raisins

(Optional recommendations: ¼ cup sunflower seeds, dried cherries, or finely chopped prunes, or 2 tablespoons sesame seeds)

*I chose to do ¼ cup chocolate chips, ¼ cup slivered almonds, ¼ cup unsweetened coconut, and ¼ cup golden rasins

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease or butter an 8 by 8 inch square pan.

2. In a small saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Continuing over low heat, add brown sugar and stir until brown sugar and butter are combined. (Original recipe suggests you stir brown sugar and butter until sugar melts, but my sugar didn’t want to melt.) Take mixture off heat and let cool 10 minutes.

3. Transfer butter and brown sugar mixture to a medium-size mixing bowl. Whisk in egg and whisk until mixture is smooth. Whisk in extracts.

4. In a small mixing bowl, stir together flours, baking powder, and salt. Add to butter and egg mixture. Stir just until ingredients are combined.

5. Fold in mix-ins of choice.

6. Pour batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

7. Move pan to a cooling rack and cool bars in pan until room temperature.

Store bars at room temperature up to three days.