It’s not that pumpkin pie isn’t enough.
Or that pecan sandies can’t stand on their own. Dulce de leche is, of course, perfect in alfajores and cakes (or on a spoon). They’re all delicious on their own.
But when you pour spiced pumpkin filling over a buttery pecan shortbread crust, then spoon on blobs of thick, caramelly dulce de leche and crumble even more pecan goodness on top, you’ll have the best of three worlds in a surprisingly not-too-sweet dessert. The velvety pumpkin layer is denser than your average pie filling — a good thing. And the bars are beautifully crumbly while still holding their shape, thanks to a sturdy pecan crust.
Rachael Sobczak developed the recipe for her dulce de leche pumpkin bars while baking at Breadfarm in Edison.
Now the owner of Water Tank Bakery in Burlington, Sobczak sells these triple threat bars only during Thanksgiving, and customers must pre-order them. But with a little elbow grease and some quality flour, you can now enjoy this sweet-and-spiced dessert any time of year. This was one of Sobczak’s first recipes she developed, inspired by a dulce de leche brownie recipe from David Lebovitz.
Sobczak has been a food person since she was a little kid, and started baking when she was 10. She majored in photography in college, and later pursued her masters in dietetics, but baking kept calling to her, so she headed to Breadfarm for a 10-year immersion in artisan baking.
During the pandemic, Tom Douglas Restaurants in Seattle was giving away a deck oven from one of its shuttered bakeries. Sobczak snagged it at little cost save for shipping. After selling her breads and other goods at farmers markets, she found the perfect spot for a bakery at the Port of Skagit’s Bayview Business Park.
Sobczak’s dulce de leche pumpkin bars, just like her sourdough breads and other baked goods, are made exclusively with stone-milled flour from Cairnspring Mills, which is just down the road from Water Tank Bakery. Once a week, the grain production company sends someone over on a forklift to deliver her flour.
Sobczak loves living in the Skagit Valley, where she can connect her customers to flour, fruits and other ingredients grown right down the road.
“It is very tangible and satisfying to be part of a local food system,” she said. “And to make things that people really like. (Cairnspring Mills flour) is something that is nutritionally superior with more whole grains and also really flavorful. I love that about it.”
Rachael Sobczak’s Dulce de Leche Pumpkin Bars
Yields 8 2-by-4-inch bars, or 16 2-by-2-inch bars
Rachael’s notes: Pumpkin puree can be made from roasted pie pumpkin (her favorite variety is Winter Luxury, but sugar pumpkins also work) or canned pumpkin will do the trick. If you make your own dulce de leche, it should be made the day before and chilled before using in this recipe. Jarred dulce de leche is also a great option.
For the pecan shortbread crust:
½ cup chopped raw pecans
1 cup all-purpose flour
⅛ teaspoon fine salt
½ cup white sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup unsalted butter, cold
For the pumpkin filling:
⅓ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup pumpkin puree
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
For the topping:
½ cup dulce de leche, storebought or homemade*
½ cup chopped pecans
½ cup pecan shortbread crust, reserved
For the crust:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pulse the flour, chopped pecans, salt, vanilla and sugar in a food processor until the nuts are finely ground. Drop in tablespoon-sized pieces of the cold butter and pulse until no visible butter chunks remain. Set aside ½ cup for topping.
Press the rest of the dough evenly and firmly onto the bottom of an 8×8 inch glass baking dish lined with parchment or aluminum foil. (To get an even crust, use a second piece of parchment on top of the crust and/or press with a rubber spatula.)
Bake for about 15 minutes, until the crust is set and starting to brown around the edges. Set aside to cool.
For the pumpkin filling:
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Beat the butter and sugar on medium speed in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or in a bowl with a hand mixer until it is well creamed and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat 30 second smore. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix a few seconds more.
Add the pumpkin puree and mix 30 seconds more on low speed, then scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix a few seconds more.
*To make your own dulce de leche:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Pour one 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated) into a glass pie plate or shallow baking dish and stir in a pinch of salt. Set the pie plate in a larger baking dish and add water to reach halfway up the side of the pie plate. Cover with an oven proof lid or fit aluminum foil snuggle over the pie plate.
Bake for 75 to 90 minutes, checking a few times to add water if it becomes low.
Once the dulce de leche is nicely brown and caramelized, carefully remove from the oven and whisk to smooth out any lumps. Store in the refrigerator and chill completely before using.
To assemble and bake the bars:
Pour the pumpkin filling on top of the room-temperature shortbread crust and smooth the top. Drop heaping teaspoon-sized pieces of dulce de leche randomly over the pumpkin filling and swirl gently with a toothpick to marble the dulce de leche.
Sprinkle the chopped pecans and crumble the reserved crust over the top like streusel.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. Cool completely before cutting, and enjoy this unforgettable layered dessert!
If you go
Water Tank Bakery
11777 Water Tank Road, Unit C, Burlington
Walk-up retail hours: Noon-6 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Sound & Summit
This article is featured in the winter issue of Sound & Summit, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to soundsummitmagazine.com for more information.