The combination of sweet and salty flavors has been irresistible to me as long as I can remember. Chocolate-covered pretzels? Love them. Chicken and waffles? Bring it on. Salted caramels? Ditto. Don’t even mention kettle corn: I can eat my way through a whole bag of the freshly popped stuff while strolling through the farmers market.
With holiday cookie swaps happening left and right, I wanted to re-create that sensation in the form of a cookie that was mostly sweet, but with an unexpected savory twist that would take it dangerously close to — but not quite at — cracker territory. My goal was something that would feel just as comfortable sitting on a plate of appetizers as on a plate of desserts.
Shortbread, buttery but not overtly sweet, is rich, but often boring. It was the perfect cookie for my makeover. Unlike chewy drop cookies (chocolate chip, peanut butter or oatmeal), shortbread doesn’t taste better when underbaked. It only develops complexity when it’s allowed to stay in the oven for a longer time than most cooks would consider comfortable, and baked at a lower temperature so the cookie is browned inside and outside. Some call these cookies dark; I call them deeply caramelized.
I started by browning the butter, a process that separates the fat from the milk solids (sugars and proteins), giving the butter a warm, nutty flavor. Next, I added the first of three savory elements: fresh sage leaves, cut into a chiffonade and fried in the brown butter. To further boost the caramel notes of this cookie, I substituted dark brown sugar for granulated.
My game-changing ingredient? Bacon. In a span of a couple of years, bacon has gone from dessert taboo to super-trendy ingredient in everything — chocolate bars, doughnuts, brownies, ice cream, bread pudding and cupcakes. I’m an avid believer that bacon makes (almost) everything better, so I was more than willing to jump on the salted pork bandwagon, even a little late. Cooked up super crisp, roughly chopped and folded into the dough, it provided sharp jolts of smoky, salty goodness.
The final touch: Sprinkling the shortbread with fleur de sel just before baking. It provided an initial hit of saltiness on the tongue that the cookies needed.
An hour later, as my house filled with an unusual and wonderful combination of aromas that would make both a sweets-lover and bacon fiend cry, I knew I had a winner.
Brown Butter Bacon Shortbread
Makes 20 shortbread cookies.
2 tablespoons very thinly sliced fresh sage leaves
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup coarsely chopped crisp-cooked applewood-smoked bacon (6 slices)
Fleur de sel, for sprinkling
- Place butter in a large light-colored (not nonstick) saucepan and cook over medium heat until brown flecks appear on the bottom of the pan and butter releases a nutty aroma, 6-7 minutes. Off heat, add sage and stir until shriveled and crisp, about 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate until almost firm, about 1 hour.
- Preheat an oven to 300 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, confectioner’s sugar and salt; set aside. Place butter mixture, brown sugar and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping sides and bottom of bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add flour mixture and beat on low speed until just incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, fold in bacon.
- Place dough on the prepared baking sheet and press into a 6- by 10-inch rectangle about ½-inch-thick. Using a sharp knife, score the dough lengthwise down the center. Score the dough crosswise at 1-inch intervals. You should now have 20 scored rectangles. Lightly sprinkle the top of the dough with fleur de sel.
- Bake until the shortbread is golden brown and set, 55 to 60 minutes. Set the baking sheet on top of a wire rack to cool 10 minutes. Gently transfer the parchment paper to a cutting board and carefully cut the shortbread into pieces along the scored lines. Transfer the shortbread to the wire rack and let cool completely, about 2 hours.
Sandra Wuis a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photo by Sandra Wu