Big Sur browned butter rhubarb bars (try saying that five times fast!)

By this time of year, I am so thoroughly sick of “winter fruit”. By this I mean the usual imports plus the single domestic offering found during the darker months: apples, oranges, bananas, and the odd kiwi. Good riddance to the lot of you.

Instead, I throw my arms wide in a welcoming embrace to rhubarb! Hello rhubarb! How I’ve missed you! You are a delightfully tangy and tasty change for my palate, and a harbinger of things to come – peaches, plums, cherries and berries, the fruits I could (and often do) live off in the summer months.

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Although I’ve got a real thing for simple and quick rhubarb cakes, this past weekend I turned my hand to something a bit more complex, specifically browned butter rhubarb bars with a shortbread base, an eggy, buttery, sugary middle, and a rhubarb compote top. The recipe comes from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook. Now, I’ve never felt compelled to cook anything from this book before (it’s a castoff my sis gave me a couple of years back) but given that Edward and I are heading off to California for two weeks in August and on our itinerary is a visit to Big Sur, I figured I should make an attempt at one of the recipes to see if the restaurant might be a worthwhile culinary stop on our journey.

The success of this recipe has got me wondering if I should give this cookbook more of a chance. And I am definitely visiting the restaurant in person. Because these bars are simply awesome. They got rave reviews from every single person who tried them and I am convinced that they are actually worth the effort of the compote making and the pastry pressing and the butter browning and every last step of the process. They are that good.

Oh, and did I mention that browned butter smells amazing? If you needed one last reason to convince you to make these – that would be it.

Browned Butter Rhubarb Bars
Adapted from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook

I have decreased the amount of sugar from the original recipe, because it seemed like an obscene amount.

The original recipe calls for a 9 x 13 inch pan, but I didn’t find there was enough base mixture to cover it so I used a slightly smaller 7 x 11 inch pan and increased the baking times by about 5 minutes.

For the compote:
3/4 cup sugar
grated zest and juice of 2 oranges, or blood oranges if you have them
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 tsp vanilla extract
4 rhubarb stalks, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

To prepare the compote, place the sugar, orange zest and juice into a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrap out the seeds from one half with a small knife. Place the pulp and the pod in the saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Cook until the faintest bit of caramel color starts to appear around the edges. Add the rhubarb and continue to cook, stirring with a wooden spoon until the rhubarb turns into a smooth jam, about 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer the mixture (discarding the vanilla pod) to a separate dish to cool while you make the crust and filling.

For the crust:
1 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup icing sugar
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium high heat, whisking frequently. Cook until the butter separates (the white milk solids will rise to a foam on top) and the butter starts to brown and smell nutty, about 5 minutes. Pour the hot brown butter into a dry bowl and freeze till solid, about 45 minutes to an hour. Place the sugar, flour and salt in a bowl and mix to combine. Take out the frozen butter and cut it into small cubes. Mix the cubes into the flour mixture, using a pastry cutter or your hands to break up the butter until large crumbs start to form. Work the crumbs together into a crumbly dough with both hands and place it in a 9 x13 baking pan. (Or a smaller one – see note above.) Press the dough in firmly with the bottom of a glass to make sure the crust evenly covers the entire bottom of the dish. Chill the crust in the fridge for 30 minutes, then bake at 375F / 190C for 15 to 20 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Remove to cool, but leave the oven on.

For the brown butter filling:
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
grated zest of 1 orange
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp all purpose flour
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp unsalted butter

Whisk together the eggs, sugar, orange zest and flour in a medium bowl. Scrape out the other half of the vanilla bean just as you did for the compote and put the pulp and the pod in a medium saucepan along with the butter and melt over medium high heat, until the butter separates and gets brown and nutty. Discard the vanilla pod. Carefully add the warm brown butter mixture to the egg mixture, whisking constantly until all the butter is incorporated.

Assemble the bars by spreading half the brown butter mixture over the cooled crust, then dollop with the compote. Spread over the remaining brown butter mixture and finish off with dollops of the remaining compote. Bake in the centre of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until the filling is deep golden brown on top. Cool before cutting into squares.