Big Sur, apparently, is a region in California famous for outstanding natural beauty. Not many people live there, but many people go to visit and explore where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. I did not know any of this until about ten minutes ago, but it does sound like an outdoorsy kind of place, doesn’t it? Some people are drawn to places like that. “Why did you climb that mountain?” I might ask them, and they’d reply “Because it’s there.” Fair enough, I’d think. “And was there anything good to eat?”
I don’t climb mountains just because they’re there. I don’t climb them at all. But occasionally a recipe gets published online and it immediately gets a reputation for being delicious, but not worth making as written. Some are too technical, like Heston Blumenthal’s Black Forest Cake (edit: six months later, I actually attempted this), or Dominique Ansel’s cronut and I read them, like science journals, and forget them. Some need too many ingredients, like almost anything by Yotam Ottolenghi, and I think, maybe one day we’ll go to his restaurant, and forget them. Some use far too many processes, but can be made from basic ingredients and baked at home, and I am drawn to these, yes I am. One such recipe was for chocolate babka, the first thing I ever made from Deb Perelman’s amazing Smitten Kitchen blog. Another was Big Sur Bakery’s Brown Butter Peach Bars, which were featured in a preview of the bakery cookbook in the New York Times, and received so much online feedback that they were too complicated, that they were pulled from the cookbook before publication, and so the recipe only exists online.
A couple of bloggers have made them, and had good results. But who has time to make these things? was the general consensus. Well, until a week ago I was unemployed, and wanting to bake something to share with our Bible study group as we start a new year of studies at church. I only started at about 3, and they were ready to bring to church at 6, including baking and cooling time (except for making the jam, which I made a few weeks previously and kept in the fridge). So don’t let the browning of the butter put you off – it’s really very do-able, and I’ve written up a slightly streamlined version of the recipe, which I adapted to use UK measurements (grams instead of cups), fewer dishes, less sugar (and replacing white/icing sugar with brown), and without the orange (following blogger comments that the flavour was overwhelming). I also used nectarines instead of peaches, because we happened to have some that weren’t good to eat – the flavour was amazing, and not-great peaches and nectarines do make seriously great jam.
So, was it worth climbing the mountain of this recipe? I’d definitely make them again – they were dreamy, custard and fruit and buttery biscuit base combining in a balanced, but nuanced way – and the wonderful nutty flavour of the browned butter makes this something very special.
Recipe: Brown Butter Peach or Nectarine Bars
For the jam:
7 nectarines or peaches
Half the weight of the fruit in granulated or caster sugar, ideally golden and vanilla if you’re in the business of keeping halved vanilla pods in your sugar so that it becomes infused with the heady fragrance
100ml tap water
1 tsp vanilla
1. Stone the fruit and chop into 1cm chunks. Leave the skins on. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, cook the fruit, sugar and water until the sugar has dissolved and the fruit is very soft. Bring to the boil and let it bubble away for 30-45 mins or so, stirring occasionally.
2. When the jam is very thick and starting to stick, turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Let stand for a minute and then whilst still very hot, pour into in a sterilised jar (hot from the dishwasher, or filled with boiling water from the kettle for 15 mins (including the lid). Put the lid on tightly and immediately, turning the jar briefly upside down to make sure the whole interior is touched by the hot jam. The jar will give a loud, annoying “pop” as it cools. When room temperature, store in the fridge for up to a good few weeks.
For the base:
50g soft brown sugar
175g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1. Brown the butter in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. It will melt quite quickly, and then start to bubble and smoke a bit. Scrape the base of the pan occasionally, but keep the heat going, for about 8-10 minutes. It should start to smell amazing, nutty and fragrant, and you will see solids start to form. Pour the browned butter into a wide bowl and place in the fridge to solidify – it should look like this:
2. Line a baking tray with parchment (mine is 25 x 37 x 5.5cm) and weigh the other ingredients into the bowl of a food processor (with the blade in first – something I forgot – d’oh!)
3. When the butter is solid, break it up and add it to the food processor.
4. Press the crumbly mixture into the tin and chill it in the freezer whilst you preheat the oven to 190C fan. When the oven is ready, bake the base for 18-20 minutes until it is medium-brown in colour. (When I baked this, I got very worried because the base was still very soft after being baked, but it worked out fine.)
Let the cooked base cool completely in the tin whilst you prepare the filling.
For the custard filling:
3 free-range eggs
200g golden caster sugar
55g plain flour
seeds from 1/2 a vanilla bean, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
1.Brown the butter like before and leave in the frying pan off the heat.
2. Whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla until very pale and moussy. The beaters should leave a ribbon-like trail. Sift in the flour and whisk in on the lowest speed. Carefully pour in the brown butter and whisk until fully homogeneous.
3. Preheat the oven to 190C fan again. To assemble the bars, spread the jam evenly over the cooled base, and then pour the custard over the jam. Bake for 25-30 minutes until set, but wobbly, and let cool in the tin.
Cut into squares and enjoy.