Sweet Easter Bread (Mazanec)

Spring is in the air now, I suppose; the flowers are in bloom, the sun is shining (occasionally – this is still the Pacific Northwest, after all), and everyone becomes marginally more cheerful as the dreariness of winter wears away. The weather is actually cooperating this Easter – the kids won’t have to put on rain boots and wade through the downpour looking for eggs, which already feels like a major Easter miracle to me! I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have small kids anymore, so the egg hunts and such are not on the agenda, but I can’t seem to get into the Easter mood this year. I think it was easier in a way while they were little munchkins, and Easter used to unfold in a very predictable fashion: Dress them in their very best outfits. Somehow, get to church on time and try to wrangle them through the service when all they think about is candy that will follow. Take them to an egg hunt; settle inevitable brotherly quarrels about who saw which chocolate egg first and help them to fairly divide the loot. Suffer in silence as you see their brand new white dress shirt (or your couch!) getting chocolate smears all over, and then try to keep them from climbing the walls and tearing the house down, when they get all crazy from the candy overdose. True Easter bliss šŸ™‚ It wasn’t easy and I remember the relief I felt when it was all over and I was secretly munching on one of their Cadbury Eggs in the evening, but now I have to confess I kind of miss it.

I tried to make myself feel more Easter-y by making the house look somewhat more presentable and coloring some eggs, but that was kind of a debacle in itself – I wanted to ditch the chemical colorings and go with Mother Nature this year, but no matter if I colored with spinach juice, beet juice, cabbage juice or turmeric, the eggs all emerged the same murky hue, as if I bathed them in the muddy pond behind our house. (The only natural coloring that never disappoints are onion peels!) Next year, I’m back to acid green and Barbie pink from a box, I think.

At least the baking part was a success šŸ˜‰ This sweet Easter bread is a classic Easter dessert baked back home on Easter Saturday. It is a buttery yeast bread, enriched with eggs and raisins. Traditionally it is slashed in the form of cross on top in remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross, and sprinkled with sliced almonds. I wanted to play with it a bit more, so I added decorations made from simple dough made by mixing flour with some egg white and water. I also soaked the raisins in rum to plump them up, and added a spoonful of honey to the dough for better browning. With some butter and a touch of jam it’ll be a splendid breakfast tomorrow.

Happy Easter, everybody! Bake your heart out, soak up the sun if you’re lucky enough to have it, andĀ eat all the chocolate you can!

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Sweet Easter bread (Mazanec)

Ā Dough:
  • 450 g (1 lb.) bread flour (or all-purpose flour)
  • pinch salt
  • Ā½ cup (100 g, 3.5 oz.) white sugar; + 1 teaspoon to sweeten the milk
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 100 g (scant 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 cup (250 ml, 8 oz.) lukewarm milk
  • 2 Ā¼ teaspoons dry yeast
  • Ā½ cup raisins, soaked in 1/2 cup rum + 1/2 cup water, and drained
  • sliced almonds (optional)
Ā Decorative white dough:
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) plain all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg white
  • milk as needed to make a pliable dough

+ 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water – for egg wash

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Method:
  1. To make the dough, combine milk, dry yeast, and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Set aside for 10 – 15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Place the rest of the ingredients except raisins in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. When the yeast is nice and foamy, add it to the bowl. Start kneading the dough, adding a bit of milk or flour if the dough seems to be too dry or too wet. You should aim for smooth and elastic dough, that’s somewhat firm, but not stiff. Add in the raisins and mix them in well.
  3. Transfer the dough into an oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 45 min. – 1 hour. Line a big baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside for now.
  4. Make the decorations, if desired: In the food processor with an S-blade, mix the flour and the egg white. Add in as much milk until the dough forms a firm ball.
  5. On a floured surface, roll the decorative dough to about 1 – 2 mm thickness. With Easter cutters, cut out decorations as desired. Cover them and set aside.
  6. When the dough has risen, punch it down and form a nice round ball. Transfer the ball onto the lined baking sheet, cover, and let it rise the second time for about 20 – 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 Ā°F (175 Ā°C).
  7. When ready to bake, coat the entire bread generously with egg wash. Gently place the decorations where you want them; but don’t press down too much. The egg wash should help to keep the decorations in place. You can coat the decorations with egg wash, or leave them dry for better contrast. If you’re not using the decorations, slash the dough in the form of cross and sprinkle sliced almonds on top.
  8. Bake the bread for about 35 – 40 minutes, until nicely risen and golden brown. Let cool completely before slicing. Serve with butter, jam, and honey.
Note:

I doubled the recipe and also made sweet yeast nests with colored eggs inside. To make those, form the dough into ropes about 1-inch (2.5 cm) thick and 14 inches (about 30 cm) long, and then braid two ropes together and join the endsĀ to make a round “nest”. Let the nests rise a second time, and place a colored egg in the middle of each one, pressing down lightly. Brush theĀ  nests with some egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar, and bake at 350 Ā°F (175 Ā°C) for about 20 – 25 min. (You don’t have to boil the eggs beforehand; they cook while the nests are baking in the oven.)

Easter Carrots with Curried Egg Salad Filling

Easter is coming really early this year. The spring is playing with us in our neck of the woods – it teases us with blooming trees and sun here and there, and just when I’m ready to let out a sigh of a relief that the winter is finally over, we get slammed with two major windstorms within three days. And let’s not even get into the subject of spring cleaning. I know it should be done, I heard it can be very catharticā€¦ I may even find some things I’ve been looking for all around the house for months. But just when I muster up the courage to tackle those windows, I remember my poor back, and the courage dissipates within seconds. I wish at least one of my personalities would like to clean, but alas, I haven’t had that luck. I take some comfort in the fact that the Easter Bunny is a male, and judging by the three male specimens I’ve had the opportunity to observe, they don’t see dust until it’s a layer one inch thick. We haven’t reached that stage yet, so I don’t think the Easter Bunny will mind enough to refuse to visit. Quite the contrary, I’m convinced he’ll come hopping whether we’re ready or not, and will try his best to kill us by cholesterol overdose as he does every year.

Unlike many other Easter traditions from back home that I’m not too fond of (how would you like to get whipped, albeit lovingly, just *a little*, and with the promise of great health and outstanding beauty next year, just because it’s Easter and you were born with a wrong chromosome?!), I actually like egg decorating. The thing is I always end up with way too many eggs to know what to do with, and after five days of eating hard boiled eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner my men are ready to start throwing them at me, or maybe even to become vegans if it means to never see eggs again.

But now we’re just starting out, and I see lots of deviled eggs, eggs on toast, and eggs in casseroles in our near future. Blue eggs, green eggs, red eggs; organic eggs, free-range eggs, omega-3 enriched eggs; whole eggs, sliced eggs, chopped eggs. So to start out the season right, and to make the Easter Bunny feel welcome, I made him these nice little carrots, filled with – wait for it – curried egg salad! I got the idea when I was making the sweet cream rolls some time ago. Those were made with puff pastry, and if you don’t feel like making yeast dough or simply don’t have the time, you could use puff pastry here too. I just wanted something a little more substantial and “bready” to accompany the salad, and I’m glad I went with yeast dough. The carrots emerged a little crunchy from the oven, but then softened some under the egg salad, and I liked the combo very much. It’s a wonderful finger food for lazy people who don’t want to bother with slicing bread for sandwiches šŸ™‚ I think they turned out pretty cute, and would be a nice addition to your Easter table menu!

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Easter Carrots with Curried Egg Salad Filling

Ā Yeast Dough Carrots:
  • 500 g (1 lb.) bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 150 ml (5 oz.) olive oil
  • 300 ml (10 oz.) lukewarm milk
  • Ā½ teaspoon sugar
  • 150 ml (5 oz.) olive oil
  • 2 Ā½ teaspoons dry yeast

+ carrot juice mixed with tomato paste – for brushing the carrots; egg white for egg wash

Curried Egg Salad:
  • 6 hardboiled eggs
  • 1 stalk celery, finely diced
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • Ā½ red bell pepper, finely diced
  • Ā¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 cloves roasted garlic
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • salt & pepper to taste

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Method:
  1. To make the dough, combine the milk with the sugar and yeast; set aside for 10 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Place flour, salt, egg yolks, and oil in a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. When the yeast mixture is nice and bubbly, pour it to the rest of the ingredients in the bowl. With a mixer on low speed, knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until it’s smooth and elastic. (If the dough is too dry, add in couple of tablespoons milk/water; if it’s too wet, add in some additional flour to achieve the right consistency. The dough should be soft, but firm.) Let the dough rise in a warm spot, covered, until it doubles in volume, about 50 minutes.
  3. Mix Ā¼ cup freshly squeezed carrot juice with 2 tablespoons tomato paste (use more or less till you like the color). Set aside – this will be your glaze for the carrots. Lightly butter and flour the cream horn molds. Line a big baking sheet with parchment paper.
  4. When the dough has risen, punch it down and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Preheat the oven to 350 Ā°F (175 Ā°C). Roll the dough out quite thinly and then cut it into long thin strips, or roll them into thin ropes – mine were about 4 mm wide. Wrap the dough firmly around the molds. Place the mold upright and glaze the dough from all sides with the tomato – carrot mixture. You can add a coat off egg white to make the carrots shiny if you wish. Place the molds onto the prepared baking sheet.
  5. Bake the carrots for about 15 minutes until golden brown; let them cool for a while, take them off the molds, and let them cool completely.
  6. For the egg salad, mash up the eggs with a fork or chop them finely. Place them in a bowl with chopped pepper, celery, scallions, and garlic. Mix the rest of the ingredients into a dressing and pour it over the ingredients in the bowl. Chill.
  7. Fill the carrots with the salad; decorate with dill or fresh parsley leaves and serve.

Chocolate Coconut Cake

Simple things make me happy. I think oftentimes it’s us who unnecessarily complicate our lives. Wherever we turn, we hear and see what we need to have, get, and achieve in order to be happy: Bigger comfortable home. Faster car. A nice vacation somewhere warm. And since we all want to be happy, we set out to do what we need to get those things. We wake up earlier, work harder, get home laterā€¦ and in the hustle of our rushing world forget to notice the small things, which are the very things that make living wonderful. Life is not complicated; we are.

Maybe we moved so far from what life is all about that we need the clutter and noise to keep us occupiedā€¦? We are so used to the constant movement and activity that we feel is pushing us closer to some big goal on the horizon that we either feel guilty when we decide to get off the speeding train just for a little bitā€¦ or we’re unable to pull the brakes at all. And so the train keeps on going, forever faster, and we miss the joy that’s right here, right now, even though countless little joys are available to us sprinkled throughout our busy days, if only we took time to realize it!

  • Hot bath. I don’t even need the glass of wine or candles to go with it, just the solitude and warm waterĀ is enough.
  • Compliment from a stranger. Works every time šŸ™‚
  • A nap. Works almost every time, except when our pet parrot gets in one of his talkative moods and keeps insistently urging me from the next room to “step up, step up!” In that moment I’m just happy I don’t have more than one feathered creature at home.
  • Hearing a song that brings back memories.
  • A good laugh. You know, the belly laugh that babies laugh with – when you can hardly breathe and it makes your belly hurt? Good times and a workout in one. Score!
  • Freshly baked bread. There is nothing better in a baker’s life than the crackly sounds of hot crusty bread taken out of the oven.
  • A wonderful new cookbook. Yes, I have way too many. And yet when I see an inventive new cookbook, especially on bread baking, I’m not able to walk away. Some people shouldnā€™t have free access to bookstores. Or maybe I should just move into one.
  • Walking barefoot in the warm sand.
  • Licking the batter off the mixer beaters when baking a cake. I know you’re not supposed to do that, but I’ve been happily engaging in this behavior ever since I started baking and it hasn’t killed me yet.
  • Finding money I didn’t know I had. That latte bought for five-dollar bill found crumpled in a pocket of the winter coat I haven’t worn for two years? I feel like I just won a lottery.
  • Seeing food being brought to me in a restaurant. If you ask Mr. Photographer, that’s actually a big one! I usually try to be pleasant in public, but when I’m hungry, all bets are off. I can go from totally fine to extremely hangry in under 30 minutes.
  • Chocolate. Enough said. There aren’t many sorrows that can’t be helped by the dark smooth delicacy.

And chocolate paired with coconut? Heaven on earth that you’re able to create for yourself whenever you want!Ā Remember Bounty bar – the moist coconut filling enclosed in dark chocolate? They were sold two per package, probably to encourage sharing, but it never worked with me šŸ™‚ This is it, except in the cake form. The cake looks and tastes a lotĀ like macaroons, and since a good amount of flour is subbed with coconut, I had no problem converting it to gluten-free. The chocolate frosting is a cooked buttercream enriched with Nutella, and to bump up the chocolate deliciousness content, I poured a rich ganache glaze over the top. Thanks to the generous soaking in Malibu it is definitely a grown-up kind of cake, but you could replace the coconut rum with simple syrup with some coconut extract added, if you insist on sharing the cake with your kids šŸ™‚

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Chocolate Coconut Cake

Cake:
  • 7 egg whites, room temperature
  • pinch salt
  • Ā¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons coconut extract (if you’re making the cake gluten-free, make sure the extract is gluten-free as well)
  • 200 g (7 oz.) unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 140 g (scant 5 oz.) all-purpose flour (for making the cake gluten-free, please see Note)
Chocolate Buttercream:
  • 400 ml (13.5 oz.) milk, divided
  • 150 g (5.3 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 7 egg yolks
  • 30 g (1 oz.) cornstarch
  • 113 g (4 oz.) semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 70 g (2.5 oz.) Nutella
  • 226 g (8 oz., two sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
Ganache Glaze:
  • 250 ml (8 oz., 1 cup) heavy cream
  • 56 g (2 oz.) unsalted butter
  • 226 g (8 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 28 g (1 oz., Ā¼ cup) powdered sugar

+ Ā¼ cup (approx. 60 ml) Malibu (coconut rum)
– white chocolate, melted – for decoration (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the cake, line a 13 x 9 inch (33 x 22 cm) rectangular pan with parchment paper; preheat the oven to 350 Ā°F (176 Ā°C).
  2. Place the egg whites with salt and cream of tartar in a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a whisk. Whisk the whites until soft peaks form, gradually add in the powdered sugar and coconut extract, and continue whisking until the mixture forms firm peaks.
  3. Combine shredded coconut, flour, and baking powder. With a spatula, gently fold the dry ingredients into the egg white mixture. Pour the batter into the lined pan and level off the top.
  4. Bake the cake until the cake looks nice light brown, the top springs back to the touch,Ā Ā and the tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Invert theĀ cake, peel off the parchment paper, and let the cake cool completely.
  5. To make the frosting: Place 350 ml (scant 12 oz.) of milk together with the powdered sugar into a deeper saucepan, and let it warm up on a medium heat. Mix the remaining milk with the cornstarch until smooth; set aside. When the milk in the saucepan is hot, mix couple of tablespoons intoĀ the egg yolks to temper them, and thenĀ pour the warmed-up egg yolk mixtureĀ along with the cornstarch into the milk, stirring constantly. CookĀ for about 2 – 3 minutes until the pudding thickens; turn off the heat.
  6. AddĀ the chopped chocolate into the hot pudding; stir to melt the chocolate.Ā SetĀ the pudding asideĀ and let it cool completely, stirring occasionally.
  7. Whip the butter until light and fluffy; add in the Nutella, and mix until thoroughly combined.Ā With the mixer running,Ā graduallyĀ start adding the cooled chocolate pudding, one tablespoon at a time, to make a smooth frosting.
  8. Assembling the cake: Sprinkle theĀ cake generously with Malibu (or sugar syrup with coconut extract). Frost the cake with the chocolate buttercream and place it into the refrigeratorĀ to chill for at least 30 minutes, so that the frosting has time to firm up.
  9. Prepare the glaze: In a small saucepan, bring heavy cream and butter to a boil. Place the chopped chocolate into a glass bowl. Pour the hot butter-cream mixture over theĀ chocolate; let stand for 2 minutes. Add in the powdered sugar and whisk into a smooth glossy glaze. Let the glaze cool to lukewarm before pouring it onto the cake.
  10. Finishing the cake: If decorating the cake with white chocolate, melt the white chocolate in the microwave and transfer it into a small Ziploc bag. Snip off the corner, and while the dark chocolate is still liquid,Ā draw horizontal white lines on top of the chocolate glaze.Ā With a toothpick or tip of a knife, make vertical lines on top of the glaze, and return the cake into the fridge to firm up.
Note:

To make the cake gluten-free, replace the all-purpose flour with your favorite gluten-free flour mix, adding 1 teaspoon xanthan (guar) gum, if your mix doesn’t contain the gums already. Please make sure the coconut extract and chocolate you’re using is gluten-free as well. My gluten-free cake turned out a bit drier and more crumbly compared to the regular cake, which was to be expected with gluten-free flour. I did my best to counteract the dryness with extra helping of Malibu šŸ™‚

Cheesecake Bars with Strawberry Glaze

I’m sorry if I won’t be my usual talkative self today. I’m tired. I just endured a teenage boy sleepover, which meant a sleepless night the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my boys were infants, and boy, can I feel it! I don’t even know when we moved from “Can you have your mom to call my mom to see if you could come over?” to “Dude, do you want to hang out today?” but here we are. Parenting teens is awesome and terrible and everything in between. You don’t have to haul them places anymore; they can stay home by themselves. They can feed themselves, they sleep through the night, and are able to get into the car without help. On the other hand, their vocabulary shrinks to pitiful five phrases: “yes”, “no”, “fine”, “I guess”, and “I’m starving”, their sense of smell gets seriously impaired (why else would they be completely happy in a room that stinks like gym socks and wet dog combined?), and, oh yes, they can get into the car without help. And drive off. Anywhere they want. And you can’t do anything but bite your nails waiting till they finally decide to come back. Because they’re starving, of course.

When you get to this stage, you’ll hear your parents coming out of your mouth a lot. The phrasing, intonation, the whole deal. The first couple times it might surprise you, but you’ll get used to it pretty quickly, and there will be moments when you’ll just be glad to have something memorized that you can use in a time of need. Because you know that otherwise you’d yell out utter something much-much worse. (And just in case you’re wondering, when presented with the “Everybody’s doing it!” challenge, you will counter with that hated jumping-off-the-cliff phrase you’ve promised yourself to never use with your kids.)

Anyway. On Saturday three big-footed, voice-cracking and pizza-loving almost men stormed into my house, and after about an hour I was ready for a vacation somewhere far-far away šŸ™‚Ā But since that wasn’t feasible, I did the next best thing, and barricaded myself in the kitchen. And this is the result: Sweet and creamy cheesecake bars with bright strawberry glaze. I love this recipe for cheesecake bars – they are extremely easy to make (no need to bake them in water bath, so you don’t need to worry about wrapping the pan in tin foil and obsess about water ruining your cheesecake), they’ve never-ever cracked up on me, are easy to cut into perfect portions (just the right amount of cheesecake without the guilt!), and you can totally make them gluten free if you buy gluten-free cookies for the crust. You can also vary them by the seasons, and pour either chocolate or caramel over the top – do whatever you feel like, and they will be delicious every time. I picked fresh strawberries from the market, added some lemon juice and lemon zest in the batter, and made lip-smackingly good strawberry glaze to pour over the top. A couple teaspoons of gelatin helped the glaze to firm up so I was able to get a nice clean cut for the pictures, but if you don’t care about that, you could just use a store-bought strawberry jam. Either way, to me strawberries say spring, and the combination of a chocolate crust, lemon and vanilla scented white cheesecake and the red strawberry glaze is a definite winner. A perfect little spring dessert!

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Ā Cheesecake Bars with Strawberry Glaze

(cheesecake bars recipe adapted from http://www.bakerella.com)

Crust:
  • 1Ā½ cups ground up cookies (vanilla wafers, chocolate cookies, or graham crackers; I used Mary’s gone crackers GF chocolate cookies)
  • 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 6 tablespoons (85 g, 3 oz.) unsalted butter, melted
Cheese Filling:
  • 3 packages (226 g, 8 oz.each) full-fat cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup (200 g, 7 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juce
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill Cup-for-cup gluten-free baking mix)
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 225 g (8 oz.) sour cream
Strawberry Glaze:
  • 2 cups fresh strawberries, sliced
  • Ā¼ cup (50 g, 1.7 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 1/8 cup lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon raspberry liqueur
  • Ā 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons Knox powdered gelatin
  • Ā¼ cup water
  • red food coloring (I used freshly pressed beet juice; it’ll give you a nice rich color, and you won’t be able to taste the beets at all)

+ Ā½ cup powdered sugar mixed with 3 teaspoons milk – for the swirl decoration (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the crust, combine ground up cookies, melted butter, and brown sugar. Line a 13 x 9 inch (33 x 23 cm) baking pan (or oblong springform pan) with parchment paper, and press the mixture evenly into the pan. Set aside.
  2. To make the cheese filling, mix the cream cheese with sugar, flour, vanilla, lemon juice, and lemon zest until fluffy. One by one, add in the eggs, mixing well after each addition. Lastly add in the sour cream and mix just until combined. Pour the filling onto the crust and bake at 325 Ā°F (162 Ā°C) for about 30 – 40 minutes until the center jiggles just a bit. (I put another pan with water on the lower rack to have moisture in the oven).
  3. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and let it cool completely. (It may puff up a bit during baking, but it should settle back down as it cools.)
  4. To make the glaze, combine gelatin with water; set aside for about 10 minutes to let the gelatin absorb the water.
  5. Process strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice until smooth. Transfer the berry mixture into a saucepan and bring it to the boil. Cook the mixture until slightly reduced (to about 2 cups). Remove from heat, add in the liqueur and the bloomed gelatin (do not cook, or the gelatin won’t set.) Stir until the gelatin dissolves and then let the glaze cool to lukewarm/room temp, stirring occasionally.
  6. Just before setting, pour the glaze over the cooled cheesecake in the pan. (The cheesecake should have risen edges; do not pour the glaze over them.) Distribute the glaze evenly over the cheesecake and put the cheesecake into the fridge for about 2 hours to let the glaze set. Just before serving cut the cheesecake into bars.
  7. To make the sugar glaze, combine powdered sugar with milk to make a thick mixture. Transfer the sugar glaze into a sandwich bag, snip off the corner and decorate the bars.
  8. Refrigerate the bars, covered, for up to 3 days. I haven’t tried it, but I don’t think freezing them would work well – the gelatin desserts tend to get “wet” when defrosted.