Saturday, September 24, 2005

Brown-Butter Whole-Wheat Shortbread

I've told you before, I'm sure, about one of Ben's classmates, and how years ago, when they were mapping out their hearts for a school project, she had divided her affections among all the usual stuff (family, animals, TV, the earth, candy) and then devoted a large section to "really strong wind." And I am so with her on that. Maybe it's people who tend to be agitated who love the wind the most: we think, "Well, at least it's not just us!" Everything blowing around actually makes us feel stiller and calmer by comparison.

That's what I feel like today: weather, weather, and more weather--and I love it. The maple tosses its reddening branches around in the sleet, in the driving rain, the lichen glowing silver against the soaked bark. The heaps and piles of snow dissolve into wind-rippled pools in the driveway. The rain slashes one way; it slashes another way; the sky lightens and then suddenly darkens. Ice crashes from roof to ground. I don't know. I mean, I'm not crazy: if you offered me 75 degrees and sunny, I'd doubtless take it. But I don't think I'd actually be happier than I am right now.

And I'm mentioning that today because these cookies? They are simply amazing--wheaty and buttery, gritty and salty and sweet--but if what you're wanting is the temperate weather of plain shortbread, then don't make them this way. They are not docile melt-in-your-mouth cookies; they are dark-and-sandy never-a-dull-moment cookies. And that is not a polite way to say that kids won't like them, by the way: Ben and Birdy are totally insane for them. They practically weep with gratitude over the browning butter smell, and I think they are starting to shift, as am I, from feeling like wheat flour is a righteously wholesome burden to feeling like whole-grain cookies and breads are actually more delicious than their white-flour cousins (with the exception of baguettes, which we all crave). However, if you make the shortbread with white flour and unbrowned butter, you will not be disappointed, as that is my mother's recipe, and her shortbread is legendary for its simple perfectness. Maybe you should try it both ways, just to see. Besides, it couldn't be easier to make.

Brown-butter Whole-wheat Shortbread
Makes 16 wedges
Active time: 10 minutes; total time: 1 hour

If you'd like to make these more conventional, use softened butter, and white sugar and flour, and proceed from the second paragraph. They will be delicious that way. And I want to note here that you should be storing your whole-grain flours in a container in the refrigerator. You know that, right? Because otherwise the oils in it will get rancid and the flour will taste off and then everyone will think they don't like whole wheat flour, which isn't true.

2/3 cup salted butter (11 tablespoons)
1/2 cup sugar, ideally something grainy (I used a fairly coarse organic sugar, but something like turbinado or muscavado would be great) to emphasize the grittiness
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2-3/4 teaspoon salt (depending on your taste for salt, but do use at least 1/2 teaspoon of kosher, or half as much table salt, since the salty-sweet combination is what really makes this)
Start by browning the butter: put it in a small- to medium-sized pan (ideally light-colored--mine isn't--so that you can see the color change) over medium-low heat. Let the butter melt, then continue cooking it, swirling the pan constantly, until the butter gets golden-brown and smells nutty, another 3 or 4 minutes. Err on the side of underdone since it will cook for a bit longer after you turn the heat off. For some reason, mine foamed, then relaxed, then suddenly foamed up again right as it was getting done. Weird. Pour the butter into your mixing bowl and let it cool to room temperature (stick it in the fridge for a few minutes if you like).

Heat the oven to 325. Cream together the butter and sugar until, um, creamy, about 2 minutes. Because the butter was melted, it probably won't get fluffy, but ideally it should look smooth and blended and opaque rather than, say, clear and greasy. Now add the flour and salt and mix until the dough starts to clump together and you don't see any dry patches, about 1-2 minutes.

Scrape it into a 9-inch glass pie plate or metal springform tart pan, then use your fingers to pat it down firmly and evenly. Prick holes all over the top with a fork or a toothpick, then use a sharp knife to score the shortbread into 16 wedges.

Bake until deeply brown all over, 45 to 50 minutes, then remove it from the oven and cut immediately in the pan, retracing your lines with a sharp knife. Let cool completely in the pan before storing airtight.

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