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.
- 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.