Pecans are so entrenched in my Southern family’s culinary history that I can’t imagine a holiday season without them. As soon as the first chill hits, my oven comes roaring out of its long summer hibernation, and an array of tasty pecan treats are soon to follow. These Brown Butter Pecan Shortbread Cookies made with Diamond of California® Pecans — whether tucked alongside warm milk for late-night nibbling or nestled into overflowing tins for Christmas gift giving — are destined to become a beloved new winter tradition.
Pecan trees were rampant in my grandparents' sprawling Georgia backyard, and my Poppy would reward us kids with a handful of nickels for retrieving bucketsful from the ground. (At the time it seemed like a million dollars!) Afterwards, my patient Nanna would sit on the front porch with us helping to crack them open one-by-one. If we were really lucky we’d get yet another reward — a gooey slice of homemade pecan pie after supper.
The pecan harvest can start up in Georgia and Texas as early September and really jumps into high gear just in time for the holidays, so it is not surprising the buttery morsels have found their way into a plethora of celebratory dishes. And of course now that we have the convenience of buying shelled pecans in the red bag, I can have my way with them throughout the year, for any occasion. Over the years I’ve glazed them, smothered them, sugared them, and spiced them; heck, I’ve even gotten them tipsy. There is practically no dish that doesn’t benefit from pecans, and every year I look forward to finding new ways to use them.
These luscious Brown Butter-Pecan Cookies are a riff on classic shortbread but are actually so much more. And while I have racked up a laundry list of cookbook-worthy sweets over the years, I must say I’m particularly pleased with these delicate, sandy treats. Deep, complex layers, starting with a rich, browned butter base and freshly-ground pecan meal, permeate the dough to allow the nutty flavors to brightly shine. They are truly a pecan-lovers dream!
This recipe is ideal for the busy holiday host. Since it’s never too early to be prepared, make a double batch and have them at-the-ready in your freezer. When impromptu guests arrive or an unexpected gift is in order, you (and your friends) will be thankful for your very smart thinking.
Brown Butter Pecan Shortbread Cookies
1 cup (8 ounces) best-quality unsalted butter, divided
6 ounces Diamond of California® pecans, divided (either halves or shelled pecans will work)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups (218 grams) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup (165 grams) packed light brown sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
Turbinado or maple sugar, for dusting (optional)
Add half the butter (4 ounces) to a medium skillet and melt over medium heat. Swirling the butter occasionally, continue cooking until it starts to bubble and foam and golden bits begin to appear; as the butter starts to brown it will produce a rich, nutty aroma. Watch closely now — it can burn quickly! — and remove the pan from the heat as soon as the butter reaches a medium caramel shade. Transfer the butter to a heat-proof bowl and set aside to cool for at least 20 minutes.
Place 1/2 cup (2 ounces) pecan halves (or shelled pecans) and granulated sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until it becomes a medium-coarse, powdery meal. Measure 1/2 cup of the pecan meal into a medium mixing bowl, discarding any excess. Add the flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking powder to the bowl and whisk to combine.
Place the remaining half of the butter (4 ounces) butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the beater blade. Cream the butter on medium speed for 2 minutes, until creamy and pale. Add the the brown sugar and continue beating on medium speed for 4 minutes, until fluffy and light. Add the cooled brown butter and beat for another 1 to 2 minutes, until smooth.
Reduce the mixer speed to low and stir in the egg yolk and vanilla bean paste. Turn off the mixer and add the flour mixture. Return to low speed and mix until ingredients are just combined. Scrape the dough down the sides of the bowl and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Turn the dough out on a clean work surface and divide in half. Place one portion onto a sheet of parchment paper and begin rolling into a log, using the paper, not your hands, as a guide. (Think rolling sushi!) Continue rolling and smoothing until you’ve got a log about 10-inches in length and 1-1/2 inches in diameter — it should resemble a paper towel tube. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight, until firm; alternately, you can freeze the dough for about an hour. (Dough can be frozen at this point for up to three months. Thaw before proceeding.)
Before baking, preheat oven to 325°F. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and roll (like a Play-Doh log) on the counter to smooth and round out, if necessary. Slice the logs into 1/4-inch thick coins and transfer to a Silpat or parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving about an inch between each round. (Feel free to smooth the rounds with your fingertips, if needed.) Gently press a single pecan half into each cookie and sprinkle the tops with turbinado or maple sugar, if desired.
Bake the cookies, turning the pan 180 degrees halfway through cooking, until lightly golden and slightly puffed, about 13 to 15 minutes. Allow to cool on pan for 15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Cookies will keep, sealed in an airtight container, for up to one week.