Each December presents an opportunity to revisit our youth and recapture the feelings that make the holidays so special. Food is inherently a part of this equation and often acts as the connector to those memories. This week’s recipe for the Joyce Family’s Famous Peanut Bars has placed me right back in my teenage years, and imbued me with a wonderful dose of Christmas spirit.
Ann (nee Joyce) Johnson and I have known each other since our plaid-skirt-wearing days at Fargo Shanley High, and she is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I’ll never forget when she introduced me to her family’s famous peanut bars, because I thought I had died and gone to heaven. If you’re a fan of the salted nut roll candy bar, or just a lover of sweet treats, then this recipe is for you.
A five-generation Christmas tradition in the Joyce family, this recipe has been passed down to Ann and her family by her father, Dr. Michael Joyce of Fargo. Dr. Joyce (Mike) began making these bars with his mother and grandmother as a boy of seven or eight, growing up in Tioga, North Dakota. Back then they shelled the peanuts by hand and used a manual grinder to crush them. This was, indeed, a labor of love.
A hot milk cake forms the center of these bars, and this old-fashioned cake has a lovely, moist texture and firm, velvety crumb. Whole milk is cooked until just about boiling, and then removed from the heat and allowed to cool some before being added to the batter.
I asked Mike why the milk needed to be boiled if it was used when mostly cool. He wasn’t sure and thought perhaps the reason could be as simple as food safety, as the milk in his grandmother’s day would not have been pasteurized. After some research, I’ve learned that scalding the milk also provides flavor for the cake.
The cake needs to cool before moving on to the next step, and Ann advised me that she often prepares it the night before assembling the bars. Once cooled, the cake is cut into one-inch squares, which will initially appear small in size until they are coated on all sides with a luscious vanilla buttercream frosting and rolled in crushed peanuts.
Upon marrying his lovely wife, Joan, 50 years ago, Mike declared that these peanut bars would be one of the first holiday traditions they would share together, a commitment they have honored each year for the past half-century. Originally, the peanuts were unsalted, but Mike and Joan have found even better results by using salted peanuts.\
While the addition of modern technology has certainly improved the cooking process, making these bars today is still something of a production, and one that is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of others, especially children.
Mike was delighted to share his family’s special recipe with me, and when I recently visited with him, he said with a grin, “I am sure my mother and grandmother are smiling now, just thinking about it.” I’m smiling too, knowing that my freezer is filled with these decadent and delicious peanut bars.