High Altitude Baking: Enjoy this simple yet sophisticated shortbreads
High Country Baking
High altitudes make cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall, and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips that make baking in the mountains successful.
These tender, sandy shortbreads, redolent with pecans and embellished with a caramel frosting are both simple and sophisticated. While very good on their own, they’re at their best when served beside a custard, mousse, fruit compote or dish of ice cream. They elevate almost any dessert they accompany to dinner-party status.
Only a few ingredients are required, which means each plays an important part in the overall results. Select high-quality unsalted butter, fresh, lump-free brown and powdered sugar, and be sure to toast the pecan pieces — it makes a huge difference in the cookie’s taste and texture. Once baked, handle these little beauties carefully. They’re delicate and will break easily.
Yields 40 2-inch cookies
1 cup pecan pieces, toasted, divided
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons bleached all-purpose flour (spoon and level)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (one stick) cold
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup dark brown sugar, packed
2-3 tablespoons heavy cream
3-4 tablespoons powdered sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center position. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
To make with a food processor: Put the pecan pieces in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until chopped fine. Remove half of them and set aside to use with frosting. Add the flour, cornstarch, sugar and salt to the bowl and pulse until the remaining nuts are ground and the mixture is well-blended. Cut the butter into 16 pieces, add them to the bowl and, using long pulses, create large, moist clumps of dough. No dry ingredients should be visible.
To make with a mixer: Chop the pecans as finely as possible and set them aside. Combine the flour, cornstarch and salt in a small bowl, whisk to blend well and set the mixture aside. Cut the butter into small pieces, place them in a medium mixing bowl and let them warm to room temperature. Add the powdered sugar to the butter and beat at medium speed until smooth and light. Add the flour mixture in three additions, mixing at a slow speed until no dry ingredients remain after each addition. Don’t overbeat! Add ½ cup of the chopped pecans (save the rest to use when frosting the cookies) and stir by hand until they’re evenly distributed throughout the dough.
2. Dump the dough onto a sheet of waxed paper and gently knead into a 6-inch disc. If it’s too soft to roll easily, chill until it firms up. Roll the dough (between two sheets of waxed paper) to a scant 1/4-inch thickness. If necessary, chill it briefly to assure easy cutting. Using a 2-inch teardrop or round cookie cutter, cut out cookies and transfer them to the lined baking sheets, spacing them about an inch apart. As soon as one sheet is filled, place it in the freezer or refrigerator and continue to fill the second one, chilling and rerolling the dough if necessary. When the chilled cookies are quite firm, transfer the baking sheet to the oven and put the second baking sheet in the freezer or refrigerator. (Chilling the cut-out cookies before baking helps prevent them from spreading.)
3. Bake one sheet at a time until the cookies are set and the bottoms are light golden in color; the tops won’t brown. This takes from 12-17 minutes depending on the size of your cookies and their temperature entering the oven. Transfer to a rack and, after a few minutes, carefully remove the cookies from the baking sheet to the rack to cool completely.
4. Make the frosting: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the brown sugar and stir/whisk continuously until the two ingredients are completely blended. Simmer, still stirring, until the sugar has fully dissolved (rub some between your fingers; it should be smooth with no graininess at all). On very low heat, stir/whisk in 2 tablespoons cream. Once blended, add 3 tablespoons powdered sugar and whisk/stir until completely smooth and opaque. The mixture should hold its shape but slide easily off of a spoon. If the mixture is too thick, add more cream; if too thin, add more sugar.
5. Put the remaining chopped pecans on a plate. Handling them gently, dip the top side of each cookie into the warm frosting, covering it about half way. Then dip the frosted part in the chopped nuts. If the frosting thickens during this process, rewarm it. If it’s still too thick, whisk in a little more cream. Place the cookies, frosted side up, on a rack until the frosting sets, then serve or store covered for two to three days, or freeze for a month.
Vera Dawson is a baking instructor and the author of three high-altitude baking books (available at The Bookworm in Edwards, Next Page Bookstore in Frisco, and Breck Books in Breckenridge). Her recipes have been tested in her Summit County kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at altitude. Contact her at email@example.com.
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