We’re working on a big cookie story for next week’s food section, but I wanted to share two of my favorite cookie recipes we’ve published. The first is this chocolate dulce de leche bar with sea salt caramel, which won a cookie swap contest we hosted in 2009.

The other is a pfeffernusse cookie that I wrote about in 2012. The cookie itself is a unique little nugget that you dip in hot chocolate or coffee to soften, but what really won me over was the history wrapped up in a recipe. Every year around this time, I think about those tins of pfeffernusse shipping across the Atlantic during World War II.

Anne-Charlotte Patterson, left, won the Statesman Cookie Swap at Stubb’s on Thursday Dec. 17, 2009, with her Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bars with Sea-Salt Caramel. Joan Brook, right, tries one of them. Photo by Jay Janner for the Austin American-Statesman.

Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bars with Sea-Salt Caramel

Anne-Charlotte Patterson’s shortbread cookie bar, kicked up with a touch of cayenne pepper, is topped with a dulce de leche custard.

For the crust:
Butter for pan
1 stick salted butter, softened
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
For the filling:
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 large egg yolks
6 oz. good quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
For the caramel sauce:
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 cup water
4 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla
Sea salt for sprinkling

For the dulce de leche: Remove label on can of sweetened condensed milk and puncture lid. Place can in a small saucepan filled with water (water should come up three quarters of the way up the sides). Simmer for 90 minutes or more until sugar caramelizes. Add more water as needed to keep can mostly submerged, which will turn the condensed milk into dulce de leche.

While milk simmers, prepare crust: Preheat oven to 375 degrees and butter a 7-inch-by-10-inch glass dish, such as Pyrex. Line bottom and 2 sides with parchment paper, leaving an overhang. Butter parchment. Mix butter, brown sugar, salt and cayenne in a bowl on low speed. Mix in flour and blend with fork until a soft dough forms. Spread dough evenly in baking pan, then prick all over with fork. Bake until golden, about 20 minutes, then cool completely.

To make chocolate dulce de leche custard: Bring cream and one cup caramelized condensed milk (save remaining dulce de leche for other use) to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan, stirring with a wooden spoon until dulce de leche has dissolved.

Whisk together yolks in a bowl, then slowly whisk in hot cream mixture. Return to pan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until pan is visible in tracks of spoon and mixture registers 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate until melted. Pour chocolate mixture over cooled shortbread and chill, uncovered, until cold and set, about 2 hours.

While bars chill, make caramel sauce: Place sugar in a small saucepan, pour water evenly over top. Set over medium-high heat and swirl pan until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to high, cover, boil syrup for 2 minutes. Uncover, swirl pan, continue to boil syrup until dark amber in color. Remove from heat. Whisk in butter until smooth. Stir in cream, then vanilla. Let syrup cool to room temperature, then drizzle over chocolate-covered shortbread.

Sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Remove from pan using parchment, cut into bars and serve, or keep refrigerated.

— Anne-Charlotte Patterson