August 17, 2010

Big Sur Bakery's Brown Butter Peach Bars -Yes, Those

Ok, I did it.  Call me crazy, but I did it.  I made those Brown Butter Peach Bars that were featured in the New York Times two years ago.  The ones all us foodies read about and drooled over and thought, "Oh, I'd love to try that!" ...And then read the recipe over a few times and decided tentatively, "That is just way too much work!"

If don't read the New York Times Dining & Wine section as obsessively as I do, you may have missed it; here's the rundown.  The directions start with, "Make the jam..."  which requires a candy thermometer...  Not only do you make jam, but also a crust and a filling.  Multiple steps end in "cool to room temperature." or something similar.  I can't even count how many pans were dirtied.  It is the kind of kitchen adventure that takes the better part of a weekend, and I finally got sucked in.

I had all those peaches my mother brought over, and I didn't want to go through the hassle of canning jam--I know, if I would have opted for the jam, I would have been finished with the task on Saturday, and I would have had jam to last until next peach season....  But this Big Sur Bakery's Brown Butter Peach Bar recipe has been firmly lodged in the back of my brain for two years, and this weekend when I looked at that bucket of peaches, and remembered that I had an extra vanilla bean in the cupboard, well, logic escaped me, and I was done for.  Actually, at first I was only going to make the jam-a batch and a half, and refrigerate it. But, c'mon really? If you're going to go that far, why not go all the way?  And what was I really going to do with all that jam if I wasn't willing to take the time to can it?

I halved the peaches.  I like how the recipe says to leave the peel on, because peeling peaches is a pain in the butt, and really, I think if the recipe directed you to blanch and peel the peaches, that might just have been a deal-breaker for me. I scraped out the red flesh that held the pit in.  Always scrape that out, it can be quite bitter.  I chopped the peaches and put them in my Dutch oven with sugar and half a vanilla bean and then I  let it cook... and cook... and cook.  The recipe says to cook over medium, stirring occasionally, until the jam reaches 220º on a candy thermometer, "about 35-45 minutes."  Well, mine sat on the stove and bubbled and splattered for close to an hour, hovering at 215º for over 10 minutes, and I finally decided that that would have to do.  I was waiting for the jam to finish, so that I could make a quick run to the market for butter and oranges, while the jam cooled. (The original recipe calls for orange juice and zest in the jam, but I didn't have it, so I omitted it, and I don't regret that.  Even without the orange in the jam, the end result had a sparkling orange flavor from the zest in the filling.  It was delicious, but it did mess with my localized palate.  I'm used to peaches in the summer and oranges in the winter (though of course Valencia oranges--more of a juicing orange-are available in California in the summer and fall, until the more iconic navel oranges flood the market in the winter).

On Saturday I also browned the first batch of butter.  Yes, this recipe directs the cook to brown two separate batches of butter. The first one is for the crust.  You brown the butter, then freeze it to harden it.

When the butter has chilled and hardened, you cut it into a mixture of powdered sugar and flour to make a crumb crust.  Then you chill the crust for 30 minutes, before baking and cooling.  At this point, with the jam and crust finished, and all those dishes washed, it really feels like you've hit the home stretch, only the filling and assembly remain.

For the filling, you brown more butter, this time with the other half of the vanilla bean.  The recipe didn't say to let the butter cool before adding it to the other ingredients, which I thought was an odd break from the habit established in the preceding steps.  You whisk eggs, sugar, orange zest and flour together, then add the browned butter and whisk to combine.

In the cooled crust, you spread half of the filling, then dollop in most of the jam.  Top with the rest of the filling and complete the assembly with a few more spoonfuls of jam.

Bake at 375º for 18-20 minutes and breath a sigh of relief that it is over and the results just might be worth it.

The recipe says to cool completely, but c'mon, I've waited 2 days  2 years, for this!  So I waited abut half an hour until I could tell that sneaking a corner wasn't going to damage the structure of the rest of the pan--you know how if you slice a loaf of bread when it is too fresh, too much steam escapes and the texture doesn't recover?--Fresh out of the oven like that, I can't say that I was disappointed.  The crumbly shortbread crust stood up nicely to the jammy peaches and-my favorite element-the fluffy, golden filling.  Left overnight, the crumbly crust becomes a little sandy and the peach jam and the orange filling meld together to become gooey and sticky and just a little on the indulgently sweet side. This is the kind of recipe that makes you understand why a decent pastry costs thee or four dollars.  It's a lot of work.  It's delicious, and I am so glad that there are people who make these things for a living, because I'd love to have one again, but I don't generally have the kind of time necessary to complete this recipe.

And for all those foodies out there who have contemplated making these, but just have not made the time:  There are a lot of good recipes for crumb bars out there.  The two elements that complicate this recipe-the jam and the brown butter-aren't necessary for a totally enjoyable crumb bar.  So if you want Big Sur Bakery's Brown Butter Peach Bars, go for it; it's a fun project and the end result is spot-on.  But if you feel like taking a shortcut and using a different good-quality jam, instead of making the one in the recipe, or the making the crust without browning the butter, the result will still be perfectly passable for a pastry-and-coffee morning or a lunch box treat, it just won't be Big Sur Bakery's Brown Butter Peach Bars.

Brown Butter Peach Bars
Adapted from the Big Sur Bakery via The New York Times
A gooey, orange-peach combination over a substantial buttery crust.

For the Jam

1 cup sugar
Juice and zest from 2 oranges
1/2 of a vanilla bean, halved, seeds scraped.  Reserve the other half for the filling.
4 cups peaches, pitted, but not peeled, cut into a 1/2 inch dice. About 2 pounds of peaches will yield this amount.

For the Crust

1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup confectioners (powdered) sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
zest of 2 oranges
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 of a vanilla bean, seeds scraped
10 tablespoons unsalted butter

1.  Make the jam (10 minutes prep/1 hour cook):
In large heavy-bottomed pot, such as a dutch oven, combine jam ingredients.  Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until temperature registers 220º on a candy thermometer.  This will take 35 minutes to an hour.

2.  Start the crust (10 minutes cook/2 hours to overnight chill):
Melt butter in small saucepan over medium high heat, stirring frequently with a heatproof spatula or wooden spoon.  Continue to cook until butter turns brown and smells nutty, about 5-10 minutes.  Be careful, butter can go from golden to black and burned in just a few seconds.   Strain browned butter into a heatproof container, such as a Pyrex measuring cup, and freeze until solid.

3.  Finish the Crust (10-15 minutes prep/30 minutes bake/1 hour cool):
Sift confectioners sugar and flour into a large mixing bowl.  Scoop butter out of container and slice into smaller pieces.  Cut butter into flour mixture using a pastry cutter. Blend until crumbly.  Press into an ungreased 13x9" glass baking pan.  Refrigerate 30 minutes.  Preheat oven to 375º.  Bake until golden, 18-20 minutes.  Let cool.

4. Make the Filling (10 minutes cook/5 minutes prep):
In small saucepan over medium high heat, melt butter with vanilla bean and seeds.  Continue to cook until browned.  Meanwhile, whisk together eggs, sugar, orange zest and flour in a medium mixing bowl.   Strain out vanilla bean and milk solids, pouring browned butter into filling mixture.  Whisk to combine. This takes some elbow grease.

5.  Assemble Brown Butter Peach Bars (5 minutes prep):
Spread half of filling over cooled crust in pan.  Tilt pan from side to side to spread evenly.  Using a table spoon, dollop about 3/4 of the jam over the filling.  Pour the remaining filling as evenly as possible over the jam, then finish with small dollops of jam.

6.  Bake and Cool (30 minutes bake/1 hour or more cool):
Bake at 375º until the filling is golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes. Cool completely in pan.  Cut into 24 bars.

Photo credit:  Jason Powers Photography
(Photo added September 6, 2010)

Other bloggers crazy enough to try 
Big Sur Bakery's Brown Butter Peach Bars:

South in Your Mouth - I especially appreciated her comments about the citrus.  She has a nice photo of the finished bars.

Izzy Eats

My Best Days Ever

Gastroanthropology -This blogger substituted other jam for the make-your-own in the recipe, so they are not Big Sur's, but they sound delicious none the less.


  1. So awesome! You're the first one I've seen conquer it. It's the word "jam" that gets me every time. I would kill for a photo -- do you have one of your finished product? Btw, in their cookbook, they must have gotten some feedback about the work required for this and ran Rhubarb Brown Butter Bars instead, which looked like *slightly* less work.

  2. Thanks for reading! I've updated the post with a link to South in Your Mouth. She has a photo that accurately depicts the end result.

  3. This sounds like a great dessert for a party. You amaze me, I don't know how you do it.