Is there an unsaid rule that bar cookies have to be heavy and gooey? Two weeks ago, we picked up a cup of coffee on our way to the park so that the little monkey could continue his path of destruction outside our apartment, and I fell for something in the bakery case called peach shortbread, cut into bars. But instead of being thick and intense, it was delicate, light and barely sweet — a thin layer of shortbread, even thinner slices of peach and the faintest sprinkling of streusel on top. I knew I had to share it.
And it wasn’t until I had jotted down “peach streusel bar” on my to-do list that I remembered a recipe for brown butter peach bars from that I found in a preview of The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook in The New York Times nearly three years ago, and have pined for since. (This recipe didn’t make it into the cookbook, but a rhubarb version — that looked almost as time-consuming and delicious — did.) Every summer, I swear, I’m going to summon the energy to make them. First, you make a peach jam from fresh peaches. It involves a candy thermometer. It takes an hour to cook. Then you brown butter and freeze it until solid. Then you make a crumb base with this butter, bake it for 20 minutes and let it cool. Then you make a custard filling with fresh vanilla bean, and brown more butter. This filling is spread over the baked crust, the peach jam is dolloped over that, and you bake it for 30 minutes more. I have no doubt that nirvana ensues, in fact, a reader recently told me that she tried them and they were absolutely worth it. But I got tired just typing this paragraph and I realized it was time for me to admit that it might not be worth it to me, especially since so much of time right now is spent doing things like this.
Besides, the easiest fruit cookie bar on earth is already in these archives. I played around with it a bit: I browned the butter, in homage to that recipe I’m never going to make, added a faint whiff of spices and messed with the proportions a little, putting more crumb on the bottom and just a sprinkle on top. You won’t believe how thin and light a shortbread bar can be, and yet with more flavor than something twice as thick and gooey. And you won’t believe how little time — even with the brown butter step — this takes and how fitting that makes them for a weekend that you’d rather spend soaking up the last of summer.
One year ago: Granola Bars (Psst, I like these better.)
Two years ago: Sour Cherry Compote, Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee, Bourbon Peach Hand Pies and Raspberry Breakfast Bars
Three years ago: Spicy Soba Noodles with Shiitakes
Four years ago: 44-Clove Garlic Soup
I browned the butter when I made these bars and for once, I felt I could actually taste it in the final cookie (when so often it gets buried under other ingredients). By that measurement, it is absolutely worth it. Still, you can make it with straight-up non-browned butter if you are pressed for time. Simply cut softened butter into the flour (instead of frozen brown butter) and increase the flour by two tablespoons, bringing it to three full cups of flour.
Note: Your base will look a hairline thicker than mine because I, uh, lost some crumbs. Onto the floor. I don’t want to talk about it.
I cut mine into 24 2 x 2 1/2-ish squares. You can halve this and bake it in a 8 x 8 pan instead.
1 cup (7 ounces or 200 grams) white sugar
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking powder
2 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (12 5/8 ounces or 359 grams) cups all-purpose flour (or you can measure 3 cups and remove 2 tablespoons flour)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon (2 grams) salt
1 cup (2 sticks or 8 ounces or 227 grams) cold unsalted butter
1 large egg
2 peaches, pitted and thinly sliced (between 1/8 and 1/4-inch thick)
Brown your butter: Melt butter in a small/medium saucepan over medium-low heat. It will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir frequently, scraping up any bits from the bottom as you do. Keep your eyes on it; it burns very quickly after it browns and the very second that you turn around to do something else. Set it in the freezer until solid (about 30 minutes).
[Don’t have time for all this brown butter madness? Check the head notes to use regular softened butter instead.]
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Butter a 9×13 inch pan, or spray it with a nonstick spray. In a medium bowl, stir together sugar, baking powder, flour, salt and spices with a whisk. Use a pastry blender, fork or your fingertips, blend the solidified brown butter and egg into the flour mixture. It will be crumbly. Pat 3/4 of the crumbs into the bottom of the prepared pan, pressing firmly. Tile peach slices over crumb base in a single layer. Scatter remaining crumbs evenly over peaches and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, until top is slightly brown and you can see a little color around the edges. Cool completely in pan before cutting into squares.
Keeping: I’ve kept mine in the fridge and they’ve held up great there since Monday. I imagine that these would freeze well, between layers of waxed paper, with the container sealed well in plastic wrap.