Combining myriad dried fruits, pecans, and coconut, this luscious bar has its roots in an old-timey recipe, curiously called “Japanese Fruit Pie.” I first encountered said pie several years ago at a church social, the contribution of Jean, a terrific cook from Asheville, North Carolina.
Jean used to cater professionally, back-in-the-day, and although she is in her eighties, she still likes to keep hands in the pot, so to speak. Her style of cooking always conveys down-home Southern-hospitality, in a posh way. Rich and tangy, her pie was a coconut-pecan custard studded with raisins. I was surprised by how much I liked it, and I had find out more.
“My mother’s recipe,” she said. “It’s Japanese Fruit Pie.”
“It’s really good,” I said. But I failed to see the connection to Japan. “Why the name?”
“Oh, I think because long ago people associated coconuts and Japan as far away and exotic. This was country folks’ way of making something special,” she laughed. “More high-falutin’.”
The next time I saw Jean, she had a recipe card made out for me. I studied it–six ingredients, with white vinegar contributing the distinctive tang. And, it set me thinking. As a caterer, I was always on the lookout for new recipes—or old recipes that could be made anew. The pie was so rich, you could only handle a sliver. But what if it were baked into bars or squares? And cut into nice little pick-up bites?
I talked with Tonya, our baker. We decided that there was no reason why we couldn’t make the pie into a bar. A shortbread crust would be good. And, we always kept an assortment of dried fruits in the kitchen. There was no reason why we couldn’t embellish–make it more “high-falutin'” by stirring in apricots, cherries, dates…
Our final tweaking of the recipe added ground pecans to the shortbread crust, and a splash of balsamic vinegar, instead of the traditional white, to the filling. The balsamic was inspiration! It lent a darker, more caramel color to the custard, and a deeper tang to the fruit.
We were really pleased with the results. The different fruits glistened like little jewels. Regarding those “jewels”–we could readily modify the recipe—based on whatever fruits we had on hand.
The bars froze with no ill effects; in fact, they were delicious, super-cold. And the slab could be cut into neat bite-sized shapes: a welcome addition to our assorted petite sweet trays. We tried to think of another name for them, but decided that Japanese Fruit Bars would suit, since they were inspired by Jean’s Japanese Fruit Pie.
Recently I spent a day baking with my friend Maggie, in her country kitchen, and we cooked up a batch. I had quite the festive array of dried fruits, and some unsweetened coconut to toss into the mix.
Once out of the oven, though, we couldn’t wait for the bars to cool. Maggie made a small pot of coffee, and we relished our high-falutin’ treats.
JAPANESE FRUIT BARS
For the Pecan Shortbread Crust:
1 stick of softened Butter
1 Cup Brown Sugar
1/2 Cup ground Pecans
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
9″x13″ Baking Pan
In a mixing bowl (if using stand mixer, use the beater on low speed),cream butter and brown sugar together. Mix in ground pecans, and begin adding flour, 1/2 cup at time. Form a ball. Wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. This can be made ahead of time, and refrigerated overnight.
When you are ready make the bars, remove the dough ball and let it soften.
Preheat oven to 350Â°
Roll and press the crust into a 9″x13″ baking pan, or pyrex dish, bring it up the sides.
Place into oven and bake for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool while you make the filling.
For the Filling:
12 T. melted Butter, cooled to tepid
1 1/2 Cups Sugar
2 T. Balsamic Vinegar
1 T. Vanilla
1 1/2 cups Assorted Dried Fruits: apricots, cranberries, raisins, blueberries, dates, cherries….your choice….coarsely chop the apricots and dates
1/2 cup Shredded Unsweetened Coconut (in the freezer section)
1/2 cup chopped Pecans
Whisk melted butter and sugar together. Add eggs and continue whisking until sugar becomes dissolved. Add balsamic vinegar and vanilla. Mixture will become glossy. Stir in dried fruits, pecans, and coconut.
Spread over cooled crust.
Bake at 350Â° for 20-25 minutes, until filling feels set. Allow to cool before cutting into bars. Unless you can’t wait.
The bars improve with age. They also freeze nicely.