Brown Sugar-pecan Shortbread
• 1 cup pecans, toasted
• ½ lb (2 sticks OR 8 oz) butter, room temperature
• ⅔ cup (4.75 oz) light brown sugar, packed
• ½ tsp vanilla extract
• 2 cups (10 oz) all-purpose flour
• ¼ tsp salt
• Optional: 4 oz bittersweet chocolate, melted
1. Nuts: Oven, 325°F. The nuts go on a baking sheet in a single layer. Pop ‘em in the oven and let them get nice and tanned, giving them a shake once or twice, anywhere from 7-12 minutes. The second you start to smell them, pull them from the oven and get them off the hot pan (or else they’ll continue cooking). Put them in a bowl and set aside until cool. Don’t put them in a tall, thin container, or in anything with a lid. If they’re too clumped together or sealed up, they’ll actually steam from residual heat and get soggy and completely defeat the purpose. Once cool, chop them very coarsely.
2. Beat together the butter and sugar in an electric mixer – you’ll need to stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice to make sure all the butter and all the sugar play nice – no lumps! No streaks! You could do this by hand, but I don’t know why you would. Once it’s thoroughly mixed, and light in color, add the vanilla and mix briefly to combine.
3. Mix the flour and salt in a separate bowl. With the mixer running on low, add it to the butter mixture. Once it’s all in there, up the speed to medium, stirring until completely blended. Stir in the nuts. The dough will be clumpy and crumbly, denser than your average shortbread dough. Don’t try to mix it until it forms a cohesive mass – you’ll over work the dough that way.
4. Dump the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap, and gather it up into a 4 ½ by 6-inch rectangle, about 1 inch thick. You don’t have to be precise; the dough will be crumbly, so this is as much about getting it all stuck together as it is forming a block. Wrap up the dough tightly (two layers) and refrigerate until completely chilled.
5. To bake the cookies: Preheat the oven to 350°F. If you have two oven racks, you can set them to upper-middle and lower-middle – this way you can get two trays going at the same time. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
6. Lay the block of dough on a cutting board. Cut the rectangle of dough lengthwise into two equal pieces, each about 4 ½” by 3”. Then cut the dough crosswise into ¼” thick slices. Place the unbaked cookies on the baking sheets 1 inch apart.
7. Bake for 15 minutes, until deep golden brown. For even baking, rotate the baking sheets and switch racks midway through baking. Upon removing from the oven, let them sit on the pan for just a moment to firm up, then pull the whole sheet of parchment off the pan and onto cooling racks. Once the cookies have cooled, store them in an airtight container. These cookies are pretty much good to go as is, with a sweet, buttery, nutty flavor that’s got some warmth to it. But if you want to turn these excellent cookies into showstoppers, dip these shortbreads halfway in melted chocolate. Chocolate work is kind of a pain, yes; unless you temper the chocolate, they should be stored in the refrigerator until ready to serve. But it’s really, really, REALLY worth it.
This is not traditional shortbread. Traditional shortbread uses granulated (or sometimes superfine) sugar, the dough is more the texture of lightly damp sand, it’s got to be pressed into a mold and skewered for proper baking, and if not done right, it’s “crack a tooth” dense or “disintegrate into dust” fragile. This shortbread is much, much easier to make. Due to the moisture content of the brown sugar, it’s already more cohesive than traditional shortbread. That means it’s less finicky and you won’t need a mold – it’s sturdy enough to slice and bake directly on a sheet tray.
That said, it still shares the essentials of shortbread – just flour, sugar, butter and salt. No leavenings, no eggs, and no butter substitutes (lard provides no flavor, liquid oils provide no structure, and do not even think about using margarine or shortening – don’t make me come over there!).
The dough will keep in the fridge for a couple of days, as long as it’s formed into a good tight rectangle and kept tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. It doesn’t take long to throw it together, but it’s still convenient to be able to make the dough days before you’re ready to cook it. A rectangle is easiest, and it does create these nice “Modern Art” feel. You can line a baking pan with plastic wrap and press the dough into there to get nice, crisp edges (but I think that’s WAY too much work). I suppose you could even go for a 2” or 3” diameter log, and then slice off circles.
For slicing, just make sure you have a good sharp, clean knife. With all the butter in there, I’ve never had a problem making clean cuts, but if you do find there’s some sticking, dipping your knife in hot water first should help. You’ll probably get a couple of end pieces that crumble on you – not to worry, press them back together and bake them. Chances are they’ll be fine. But if they do crumble or get overly brown, just consider them the chef’s snack.
Pairs Well With
It's not traditional shortbread, but I've never heard any complaints. I stumbled across this recipe several years back, and it's quickly become one of my go-to cookies at the holidays. It's easy to make, fairly bulletproof, and like I said... no complaints.