Pear-Vanilla Brown Butter Bars

Welp, that's all the fun we're going to have for a while now, folks. The holidays have come and gone, we can't legitimately say "Happy New Year!" to strangers anymore, and Valentine's Day has fizzled out and left us all with killer chocolate hangovers. Now it's just...winter. Bah.

I can't be the only one who feels that the last two weeks of February are akin to watching a Top Chef marathon when you've already seen all the episodes, like, five times each. Pear-Vanilla Brown Butter bars, guys--consider them your ticket out of this crazy-making holding pattern.

Speaking of things that aren't dreary, several months back the husband and I got all 2003 with our ourselves (read: barely married, childless) and decided on an impromptu weekend trip down to Monterey. We were giddy about getting out of the city for a couple days, and thought that Little C would just love a visit to the insanely enormous aquarium down there. Our first little family getaway--how Griswold of us! So fun! So much bonding! So much gear required OH MY GOD DO WE REALLY NEED A CASE OF GRAHAM CRACKERS.

Four duffle bags, two sacks of snacky groceries and a loaded DVD player later, we were on our way to the Central Coast. Aside from Little C soaking her entire carseat with apple juice before we even reached the freeway, we had an awesome time together. The views were literally breathtaking, the heavenly sort that make you feel so tiny in comparison to their majesty. The aquarium was indeed Little C approved. And most importantly, I convinced the team to stop in Big Sur so I could cross something off my Baking Geek Bucket List: Lunch and dessert at Big Sur Bakery. Yesssss.

The savory items we tried at the bakery were terrifically satisfying, fresh and flavorful, but the desserts--oh the desserts!--that's what Mama really came for, people. And the Huckleberry Brown Butter Bar did not disappoint.

I couldn't get over how complex the bar was in flavor and texture, in direct contrast to its humble appearance. Nutty and rich with brown butter, a bit of crisp, a bit of chew, a punch of jammy fruit. I was instantly obsessed. The recipe would be mine. And thanks to the gloriously earthy tome that is The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook, I didn't have to look too far.

The recipe in the book is neither for a Pear-Vanilla bar nor the aforementioned Huckleberry Brown Butter Bar, it's actually made with rhubarb. But like I said earlier, we are in the slog of February here and rhubarb is in very short supply. In a couple months, we can make Rhubarb Brown Butter Bars happen, but for now, all things pear are the order of the day. And happily, the pairing positively sings.

Now I'm not going to lie, darling readers--for as unassuming as this bar looks, you do have to go through a few steps here to make it all happen. But if you're like me, you might be so intrigued by some of the elements that you won't really mind the extra time spent doing things like, say, browning two separate batches of butter, and then freezing some of it solid to make the crust. Genius!

After you've got your solid brown butter ready, the crust comes together in seconds in the food processor. Then while the crust is baking and cooling, you can start preparing a pear-vanilla jam of sorts and attempt to not pass out from how beautiful it smells while cooking.

In addition to the fabulously ambrosial jam, you're also going to whisk up a brown butter filling, which is a concoction so magical I might go into some very suggestive language to describe how delicious it is. I'll just say this: warm browned butter, sugar, eggs, hits of vanilla and orange? Huminuh, huminuh.

My only suggestion to you beyond being prepared to do a few extra dirty dishes with this recipe is to also have something heavy to chain yourself to while these bars are baking, because, good Lord, the smell is incredible. You'll suddenly care about those February doldrums not a bit.

Pear-Vanilla Brown Butter Bars Adapted from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook

These bars are so sweet and rich, I halved the original recipe and cut them much smaller than the bars the bakery serves.To feed a bigger crowd, you can double this recipe and use a 9x13 pan. When doubling, use 3 whole eggs.

Zest your orange before juicing it for the jam--you'll need the zest for the brown butter filling.

Makes 12

For the crust:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

For the jam:
2 medium firm-ripe pears (I used Anjou), peeled, cored and chopped into 1/2 inch chunks (to yield about 1 1/2-2 cups cut fruit)
1/3 cup fresh orange juice (from 1 large orange)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the brown butter filling:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest (from 1 large orange)
7 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Being by making the crust: Place the butter for the crust in a small saucepan set over high heat. Melt the butter. Once the butter is completely melted, it will bubble and sizzle. Keep swirling the pan occasionally, and listen and watch carefully--when the foam begins to subside and the sizzling suddenly, the butter will quickly turn brown and smell nutty, about 5 minutes total. Quickly pour the hot butter into a small metal pan (I use a loaf pan) and place in the freezer until the butter is solid, about 20 minutes (wipe out the saucepan with a paper towel and set is aside--you'll need it for brown butter batch #2).

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Completely line an 8x8-inch square pan with aluminum foil.

Place the confectioners' sugar, flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor (or a mixing bowl if you want to work by hand). Pulse briefly to blend the dry ingredients. When the butter is solid, scrape it out of the pan using a spoon or fork--it doesn't have to be pretty, it just has to get all out of the pan. Place the butter pieces into the food processor and pulse until a dough forms (or use a pastry butter if you're working by hand). Press the dough into the prepared pan. Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes. Bake the crust until golden brown, about 18-22 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack (leave the oven at 375 degrees).

While the crust is cooling prepare the jam: Place the pear chunks, orange juice and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir to combine, and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook until the pears are very tender, about 7 minutes. Use a potato masher or fork to mash the pears into small bits (but not completely smooth). Cook until the jam is thick and any excess liquid has all but disappeared, about 7 minutes more. Stir in the vanilla extract. Transfer the jam to a separate bowl to cool.

Place the 5 tablespoons of butter for the filling into the small saucepan. Brown the butter as you did in the step for the crust. Set the brown butter aside to cool slightly. Whisk together the egg, egg yolk, sugar, orange zest, flour, salt and vanilla extract until smooth. Gradually whisk in the warm brown butter until the filling is well-blended. Pour half the brown butter filling over the cooled crust. Dollop the jam evenly over the surface of the filling. Top with the remaining filling.

Bake until the filling is a deep golden brown, about 35-40 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack before removing the bars from the pan and cutting into squares. Store any leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Vanilla, BarsShauna Sever