Raspberry barsI love holiday baking. Let me repeat I LOVE holiday baking. But I don’t always have time for it. Then my 12-year-old mentions she needs a plate of goodies for choir or I really want to give a baked present to a friend but I have about 30 minutes to make something decent–and yeah, I need to do a load of laundry in between.

My secret? A little zing can make any cookie bar better, whether you’ve made it from scratch or enlisted the help of Krusteaz or whatever boxed mix you happen to have on hand. (Nope, no sponsorship from Krusteaz here, I just really like their raspberry crumb bars.)

Here are a few tweaks that will make your cookie bars stand out–

•Zest: Lemons, limes, oranges, clementines, adding a little citrus zest to your crumble bar batter will give it an added tanginess. (Use about a teaspoon of zest for a small batch and zest the entire fruit for a cookie-pan sized batter.) Fun pairings: orange zest with chocolate, lemon zest with raspberry, lime zest with strawberry.

*Confused about how to zest? No worries. Click for the lowdown on zesting.

•Fruit slices: After you’ve zested the fruit, don’t just send it down the garbage disposal! Cut thin, circular slices of the fruit. Then cut a line from the outside of the fruit just barely toward the center. Twist the fruit slice and place it on top. Make sure to add the twists just before serving. Refrigerate them until you’re ready.

•Almond extract: My vanilla extract bottle has been gathering dust lately. I don’t know, it just doesn’t have enough oomph for me. But the smooth flavor of almond just screams holidays to me. So I’ve been putting almond extract in place of vanilla in every recipe.

•Nutmeg: Another flavor that will inspire you to start singing Christmas carols, any recipe that calls for cinnamon, go ahead and add some nutmeg (about 1/4-1/2 teaspoon). If you’re daring, toss a few shakes of ground ginger in the batter too. Nutmeg pairs perfectly with most recipes calling for oatmeal.

•Nuts: Pecans are pricier than other nuts so I usually only get them around the holidays. Looking for a less expensive option? Almond slivers. No need to chop them before you use them, just add a few slivers to one of your favorite bars to make it look a little fancier. Or what about cashews?

•Chocolate: Okay, if you read my blog regularly you know I’ll use any excuse to add a little chocolate, but try something different–like mini-chips or chunks instead of your regular variety.

Shaped raspberry cookie bar

If only I had a star cookie cutter!

And to make your cookie bars really stand out, forget the bar! Refrigerate the cooked bars for about 1 hour and then instead of cutting, use a cookie cutter to make different shapes (warning: you’ll get fewer bars this way, but your kids will love having the job of eating the extras.)

Ready to get baking? Check out these recipes for the Best Cookie Bars. I’ve been looking through the site as part of the Motherboard team. Once a week, I’ll be posting about the exciting things not to miss on the their site, and their affiliates. (The peanutty buckeye bars are on my list to make:)

What about you? Do you have any hints for making your cookie bars even more tasty?

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