Caramel Nut Bars

Decadent chocolate caramel nut bars filled with gooey caramel and studded with crunchy pecans are sure to be a hit at your next party. All the flavor of a classic turtle with about 1/3 of the work!

Chewy Caramel Nut Bars
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I love a good bar cookie. Bar cookies already take out about half the work by not being individually scooped. We just throw the batter all in one pan and let the oven work it’s magic .

We cut down on our prep time even more by using semi prepared ingredients (cake mix and store-bought caramels) so these are the perfect dessert to bring to a Friday night gathering when you don’t have all day to make something fancy. (But they totally taste like you did). There is a reason this recipe has been a hit at midwestern potlucks for years.

I got this recipe from a friend’s mom who got it off the back of a can of evaporated milk many years ago. It’s been tweaked ever so slightly over the years, swapping out walnuts and adding pecans and adjusting the amount of milk (cans of evaporated milk are bigger these days).

caramel nut bars

What is evaporated milk?

This recipe calls for evaporated milk, but what the heck is it? Evaporated milk is canned milk where about 60% of the water has been removed. The resulting milk is a little bit thicker and creamier with a significantly longer shelf life than regular milk.

John Meyenberg started making and selling the first unsweetened evaporated milk back in 1890 (PET Milk). The pursuit of a better product led them to develop and use homogenization-a technique used in pretty much all dairy production today.

It’s different from heavy cream because it doesn’t have as much of the milk fat as cream. It’s also far more shelf stable then cream (i.e. you don’t have to refrigerate it unless it’s been opened).

Caramel Nut Bars

How is it different from sweetened condensed milk?

Sweetened condensed milk is milk where much of the water has been removed AND sugar has been added. It’s thick and slightly more yellow looking and super sweet. Kinda gross to consume straight out of the can, super awesome in certain desserts.

Sweetened condensed milk was actually the first canned milk to be released back in 1856. The idea was to create a milk product that would last longer than just a day or so. (Pasteurization wasn’t even discovered until 1862). The sugar was originally added to inhibit bacterial growth in the milk (kind of like the same reason we add sugar to jam).

What’s super delightful, is they both come in similarly sized cans and are typically together on the shelf at the store.

Oh shoot, I bought the wrong one, can I just interchange them?

Um, no. Using sweetened condensed milk where you just needed evaporated milk will make your dessert way too sweet.

What’s super delightful, is they both come in similarly sized cans and are typically together on the shelf at the store, so this is a super easy mistake to make.

If you messed up and bought the wrong one, you can use half and half as a substitute for your evaporated milk or you can make your own.

Hopefully you realize you bought the wrong one before you open it, but if you’re like me, you’ll just be staring at an open can of the wrong milk swearing in your head (or sometimes out loud).

caramel nut bars

Notes about these Caramel Nut Bars:

  • Stir the caramel sauce constantly and over medium to medium low heat. We’re really just looking to melt the caramel bits and incorporate the evaporated milk to make it a little creamier. We don’t want to burn it or further cook it.
  • Putting the remaining blobs of cake batter mixture on the top is not super pretty. They will stick to the caramel layer, you won’t have quite enough to spread it all out, it all seems quite frustrating. Don’t fret, it all spreads out in the oven and besides we’re covering it up with a second healthy layer of nuts and chocolate chips
  • Speaking of nuts and chocolate chips, the amounts listed are the amounts I used, but for the most part, I just eyeball what a not too thick, not too thin layer of each looks like. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less depending on my audience.

Caramel Nut Bars

Chocolate bars filled with gooey caramel studded with crunchy pecans.
Course Dessert
Cuisine American
Keyword bar cookie, caramel, chocolate
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 45 minutes
Servings 15

Ingredients

  • 2 cups Kraft caramel bits or 48 Kraft caramels
  • 2/3 cup evaporated milk divided
  • 1 package chocolate cake mix with pudding
  • 1 stick melted butter (8 tablespoons)
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
  • 1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Instructions

  • Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease 9×13 cake pan.
  • In a medium sized saucepan, combine the caramel bits and 1/3 cup evaporated milk.  Over medium heat, stir until caramel bits are melted and mixture is combined.  Remove from heat and set aside.
  • In a large mixing bowl, stir together remaining milk, cake mix and melted butter.  
  • Press 1/2 the cake mixture into the bottom of the pan.  Bake for 8 minutes.  
  • Remove from the oven and sprinkle 1 cup nuts and 1/2 cup chocolate chips over the crust.  Pour caramel sauce over the top, spreading to the edge of the pan.
  • Take tablespoonfuls of remaining cake mixture and plop onto the the caramel sauce.
  • Top with remaining nuts and chocolate chips.
  • Bake for 18 more minutes.  Remove from oven, allow to cool and enjoy!

Notes

This recipe was adapted from a recipe I got from a friend’s mom who got it from the back of an evaporated milk can a long time ago.
If you or the people you’re making it for, don’t care for nuts, feel free to omit them or just put them on half the pan.

Happy Baking!

If you’re looking for other delicious bar cookie recipes, you might want to try these Kongo bars or maybe some peanut butter pizza.

For other recipes that include evaporated milk, check out these pale ale caramels.

Sources:

Bon Appetit

Bigger Bolder Baking

The Spruce Eats

Biography

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