Recipes so good it oughta' be a sin!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Butter and Brown Butter Bars Recipe

Let's stop for a moment and consider one of the basic ingredients of almost all baking - butter. Now butter gets a bad rap from some people (we won't mention names) if it's not slathered on in some fancy French or Italian dish. If it's in a good old American, particularly Southern recipe, well that's a bad thing.

Prejudices aside,  butter is integral to baking. It's needed to coat flour to create a beautiful crumb in baked goods. It lends its flavor to delightful treats like shortbread and butter cookies. It even works as an emulsifying agent at times.

Of course, you can find all sorts of butters in the supermarket these days. There are the old standbys of salted and unsalted. Almost all bakers utilize unsalted butter because it allows us to control just how much salt goes into a recipe. But even in those two you'll find dozens of brands on the shelf. It's generally a good idea to pick the best butter you can find that fits your budget and your recipe. Sometimes, if I'm doing a recipe where butter is just a workhorse, say coating the flour and not contributing a whole lot to the taste profile, I'll choose the generic store butter. This is particularly true in recipes where there is the need for a lot of butter but not a lot of butter taste. However, if I'm working on a recipe where butter is going to play a starring role in the flavor profile, I'll opt for the best butter my budget allows. Amazingly, about the best supermarket brand (and this even backed up by Cook's Illustrated) is Challenge butter. Normally, it's only 25 cents or so more than the store brand, so certainly worth the slight upgrade in price. Now you can go all out and use imported butters from Ireland, Denmark and any other number of countries. Normally, I would reserve those for use in butter spreads where I want a spectacular butter flavor combined with herbs or something else.

Brown Butter Bars served with a
dollop of Cream Cheese Frosting
and Halloween sprinkles.
If you're very lucky you may find a store or farmer's market that carries fresh locally churned butter. If you have access to that grab it up! Many years ago when I did living history at a national park we often were blessed with fresh butter and buttermilk thanks to 18th century life demonstrations. One of our volunteers would bring in fresh milk and spend the day churning it into butter. To be perfectly honest, a lot of visitors and tourists spent the day churning it into butter. It's amazing what people find fun when they don't have to do it all the time. By the end of the day we would have wonderfully fresh butter and buttermilk to use in recipes. The taste is simply unmatched. So, if you can get fresh butter, get it and thank your lucky stars!

Regardless of what butter you choose, it is essential to baking. But there is one trick you can do that will take an ordinary recipe using ordinary supermarket butter and kick it to the next level. Anytime you run across  a recipe where melted butter is called for, take a few extra minutes and make a brown butter. It's incredibly easy to do. Just pull out your light colored skillet, add the butter in small chunks, and melt it on medium high temperature. Swirl the pan from time to time and you'll see the butter foam and small brown bits begin to form. That's the butter fat. Watch closely and you'll notice the butter turn a delightful golden brown color and give off the most incredible buttery and nutty scent. Your butter is ready. Take it off the burner and use in your recipe as directed.

Brown butter imparts an incredible complexity to the flavor profile of a dish. It is both buttery but with a nuttiness that is hard to describe. If you ever have the chance to make two identical dishes - one with melted butter and one with brown butter you'll notice the difference immediately. It's much like adding a bit of coffee or espresso to chocolate - you won't miss it if you've never had it, but you'll notice the startling taste difference if you do it.

That's what sets these bar cookies apart. This recipe is based on a traditional Shaker recipe and is very, very simple - as are most of their crafts. It's simply butter, brown sugar, flour, eggs, leavening and vanilla. So, butter is carrying a big load for the flavor of this. Browning the butter instead of just melting makes this bar cookie incredibly decadent and delicious. The richness of good brown sugar and brown butter together can't be matched. It's like a perfect marriage of flavors that sends shivers down your spine. By the way, when you're looking for brown sugar for something like this go with a dark brown sugar which has a richer and more molasses like taste. Also, try to find sugar that is not made from sugar beets but rather real cane. There is a subtle difference in flavor and brown sugar and butter are what makes this dish.

So, brown your butter, choose a good sugar and enjoy these rich and delicious Brown Butter Bars!

Brown Butter Bars

Brown butter kicks this traditional Shaker recipe up a notch into a decadent and mouth watering treat!

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, browned
  • 2 cups packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
Cooking Directions
  1. Preheat oven to 350° and create a foil sling for a 9x13-inch pan. Butter the pan or spray with non-stick cooking spray. Set aside.
  2. In a small light bottomed skillet melt the butter over medium high heat. Swirl the pan gently from time to time as the butter fat separates and forms a foamy surface. You will see the fat begin to form brown particle on the bottom of the pan. Continue swirling until the butter turns a golden brown and gives off a nutty scent. Remove from the heat immediately and set aside to cool slightly.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment beat together the brown butter and brown sugar until well mixed. Add the baking powder, salt, and vanilla and beat until incorporated. Add the flour and mix well. The batter will be quite stiff at this point. Add the eggs and mix until incorporated. Give the batter one least stir with a wooden spoon or spatula.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Using a spatula, smooth out the batter into the corners of the pan and evenly across the bottom.
  5. Bake for 25-30 minutes or just until the edges are brown and pulling away from the sides of the pan. Be sure not to over bake this. It's better a little underdone than overdone!
  6. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in pan on wire rack. When cool, remove from the pan using the foil sling and slice.
  7. This can be stored up to 3 days in an airtight container. 
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
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