Orange ricotta bars with fresh mint

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It was one of those serene kitchen days when everything just kind of works out.  

My husband and I were home on a Sunday, tending to our new puppy (!) as storm clouds gathered outside, and I set out to prep for dinner. Two of our friends were coming over, and we had decided to make potstickers from scratch. We would get the food ready and they would bring the cocktails. (More on that later because wow they were good.)

At the last minute, I decided we needed a homemade dessert, because I am nothing if not Very Extra when it comes to menu planning.

I had chopped red cabbage, an apple and an onion for an Asiany slaw; mixed sesame oil and rice wine vinegar for the posticker dipping sauce; diced some sweet potatoes that would later get roasted. And there were still hours left before our dinner party began. 

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This is not usually how it goes. Usually, I overbook and underprep, and then get FOMO while I'm stuck in the kitchen mincing garlic cloves. But on this magical day, I had time to scroll through my Pinterest boards, looking for a dessert that was light but still dessert-y enough. 

I landed on Orange Poppy Seed Bars. Quickly realizing I didn't have poppy seeds but I did have ricotta cheese leftover from the previous night's lasagna, I came up with this recipe. These bars are dense and soft, orange juice and zest lightening them up. They're even topped with fresh mint sprigs that I remembered to clip from our backyard herb plants, which is how you know I was really on my kitchen game. 

Hot tip: They make for a great Monday morning breakfast when you're running late because your puppy doesn't quite have his bathroom routine down yet. 

Orange Ricotta Bars

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5 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces ricotta cheese
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Zest from 1 orange (save a pinch for the glaze)
Juice from half of that orange
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the glaze:
2 tablespoons milk
Pinch of orange zest
1 cup confectioners' sugar, more if needed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Fresh mint, for garnish
Orange slices, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a square baking pan (I used a 9- by 9-inch pan) with cooking spray.

Melt the butter in a microwave-safe bowl; should take between 20 and 30 seconds. Add to a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar, orange zest and juice, and mix. Add the eggs and vanilla extract, and whisk until the batter is smooth.

Add in the flour, baking powder and salt, and gently mix until everything is incorporated. Pour batter into the pan and bake for 40 minutes. You can start checking after 30-35 minutes, but mine took the full 40. The bars will be slightly brown around the edges, but don't let them get too brown. Make sure a toothpick or knife inserted into the center of the bars comes out clean. 

Remove from oven and let cool in the pan for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, gently run a knife or spatula around the edge of the pan to loosen bars, then flip pan over carefully so the bars wiggle out. Let bars cool on a baking rack for another 15 to 30 minutes, or until cool to the touch. 

Meanwhile, make the glaze: Mix all glaze ingredients in a small bowl, whisking to thoroughly combine. If very thin, add more confectioners' sugar. You want it somewhat runny; it won't be thick like frosting. 

When the bars are cool, cut into 10 to 12 squares. Gently spread about 1 tablespoon of glaze on each square (it will be drippy; that's okay). Top each one with a fresh mint sprig and orange slice. Serve immediately, or refrigerate but let come to room temperature before serving. 

Makes about 12 bars.