Friday, May 23, 2014

Brown Butter Walnut Shortbread

Sometimes it's the simplest pleasures in life that really provide a good measure of delight.  Shortbread definitely falls into that category of the kind of thing that can deliver heavenly simplicity with maximum benefit.  Buttery, toasty, crispy and crumbly, it's a sublime treat at any hour of the day.

There's not much of a secret to good shortbread.  Just a few basic ingredients handled lightly and quickly and then into the oven for a slow toasting to bring out the full flavor and texture we identify with a great cookie.

Here I've embellished the basic formulation with toasted walnuts, a hearty and delicious nut that seems to get underplayed these days.  To emphasize their lusciousness, I brown the butter to a medium amber, careful not to take it too far or anywhere near bitter territory since walnuts have a high acidity and a slight bitterness all their own.  (Walnuts contain the highest amount of omega-3 essential fatty acids or alpha-linolenic acid.)  I also use dark brown sugar to lend a caramel note that complements walnuts so thoroughly and beautifully.  There's a smidge more sugar than usual to counter the nut's acidity.

These cookies are a knockout partner for ice cream and the bounty of fresh fruit of the season.  I love them with red flame grapes, fresh figs or peaches or as an adornment on a nice cheese plate.

Bench notes:
- Use a stainless steel pan to brown the butter so you can clearly see its progress.  Watch it carefully as it can take just a moment to burn.  Once you begin to detect a nutty aroma, it's just about ready.  I lift the pan off the heat and swirl for more control if I think it's browning too fast or nearly done.  It will continue to brown once you take it off the heat.  Pour immediately into a heatproof bowl to begin to stop the cooking.  Let it cool before using in the recipe.
- Toasting nuts gives them a deeper, richer flavor.  Place walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast in a 350 degree F oven for about 8 - 10 minutes, checking them frequently.  Place the pan on a wire rack to cool.
- Unlike classic shortbread, this version does take on a lot of color.
- Scoring the shortbread with the tip of a sharp knife when it comes out of the oven will give you nice clean slices instead of jagged shards.
- Due to the color of the dough, it can be a bit dicey to tell when the shortbread is done.  I go by my nose.  It will smell really fragrant.  Don't go much further past that peak aroma.  If you happen to underbake it, slice into portions and return to the oven to toast for a few additional minutes.
- The shortbread can be stored in an airtight container for several days.

Brown Butter Walnut Shortbread
Makes 16 wedges

4 oz (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 cup (5 oz) flour
1/4 cup + 3 tablespoons (89 grams) dark brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 oz) toasted walnuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla
1 egg yolk

raw sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Set aside an 8" round tart pan with a removable bottom.

Cut the butter into small pieces and melt in a saucepan over medium-low heat.  Swirl the butter carefully as the foam subsides and the butter begins to brown.  Lift the pan off the heat periodically to check on the browning flecks on the bottom of the pan and to avoid burning.  Once the butter begins to reach a medium amber, pour immediately into a heatproof dish to stop the cooking.  Set aside to cool.

Place the flour, brown sugar, toasted walnuts, salt and cinnamon in the bowl of a food processor and process until nuts are finely ground.

Combine the vanilla with the cool brown butter and add to the flour and nut mixture along with a broken egg yolk.  Pulse just until the mixture begins to come together into a crumbly dough and starts to clump together.  Place the clumps in the tart pan and press them into an even surface, making sure the edges are flattened to prevent burning.  Dust with a sprinkling of raw sugar and press gently into the surface.

Bake the shortbread until golden brown, about 35 minutes.  Place on a wire rack.  Score the surface of the shortbread into 16 portions while still warm using the tip of a knife.  Cool completely, then gently remove from the tart pan.  Use a sharp chef's knife and an up and down motion to slice into pieces, wiping the blade clean after each cut.


Bryan said...

These are really wonderful. Then again, I'm a total sucker for crispy shortbread in any form.
The hint of cinnamon is great.
I went all wacky and added a portion of whole wheat flour to accentuate the texture, which I think works really well here. Then, topped the pre-baked dough with a mix of raw sugar with a hit of maple sugar and salt.

A variant of this would make a great crust for a tart or something.
Thanks for another good cookie!

pastry studio said...

Hey, B! I thought about using some whole wheat flour but was wondering if it might be too assertive or add a slight note of bitterness. Do you remember how much you substituted?

I like your idea of this as the bottom of some sort of tart or bar cookie. Hmmmm…...

Bryan said...

Hi! It was an easy 50/50, ww/AP. I grind regular red wheat berries into a nice flour with fine flecks of bran.
Good stuff!

pastry studio said...

Ah, that sounds really delicious.

WISH you had your own blog so we could see what you're doing over there with fresh ground flour and all the other super fresh ingredients you produce and experimentation you undertake for your pastries! I mean, really.

Anonymous said...

I made these exactly as written and they were lovely. The flavor is so toasty and delicious. I made them in a 9"tart pan since that's what I have. They were easy to cut after scoring as you directed. So easy to mix up in the food processor! Thank you for a delightful recipe.

pastry studio said...

Anonymous, so glad you enjoyed these cookies as much as I did. Great that it also worked out with your 9" pan. They'll be a little thinner and bake in a shorter amount of time but they are just as delicious.

I love my food processor! Once you get the hang of how doughs should look, it really does work for a lot of pastry.

Jorge Bizarro said...

Just out of curiosity: I wonder if that egg yolk has a purpose in this recipe because shortbread traditionally doesn't take eggs...
I for myself love shortbread and I do tweak a bit traditional recipes because I like to substitute extra virgin olive oil (EVO) for 1/3 of the butter in a given recipe, especially in a 'nutty' or citrus flavoured variety. So, if a recipe calls for 100 g of butter, I use 70 g of it + 20 of EVO. The butter flavour will still come out and the texture a bit more tender and lighter; besides olive oils can add herbal, fruity or nutty flavours on their own.

pastry studio said...

Hello, Jorge. The egg yolk in this recipe is there in lieu of more butter. With the addition of ground walnuts, I didn't want the cookie to be too "oily." The yolk adds richness and binds the dough.

I like your idea for substituting olive oil for butter in some recipes. It's a nice change in flavor.

I hope this helps!