A few days ago, I wrote a post titled "Better Butter." Today's post could easily be subtitled "Better than Butter." What, you may ask, could be better than butter? Browning it. Brown butter, also called beurre noisette, is like liquid gold. From the first time that I tried it, I quickly figured out that it makes everything taste better, and I have been working it into recipes ever since.
Brown butter has been a staple of restaurants and professional chefs for quite some time, but it requires such little time and effort to make that home cooks should feel just as comfortable using it in recipes. It involves boiling the butter until the water in the butter evaporates, the milk solids foam and then sink to the bottom of the pan, and the liquid turns golden brown. Just be sure to keep an eye on the butter as it simmers--it can go from golden brown to burned in a matter of seconds. Your strategy should be to make some brown butter about 15 minutes before you are expecting guests to arrive. The rich, nutty, and toasty smell that it creates will make it seem like you have been baking for days. I occasionally make a large batch of brown butter, pour it into a bowl, and then keep it in the fridge so that I can use it whenever I need some.
Brown butter works well in both sweet and savory dishes, enhancing everything from vegetables to layer cakes or, in the case of this crostata recipe, walnut streusel topping. This is actually a great recipe for you to practice your brown butter technique with, as it only requires a 5 tablespoon commitment, so if you don't get it right the first time, you can try it again (but I feel confident that you will nail it on the first try.) A crostata is a rustic Italian dessert tart, similar to a pie, but much easier to prepare because the edges of the dough are just folded over the fruit filling. "Rustic" to me translates to "doesn't need to look perfect," so you don't need to worry about uniformly shaped borders or crimping the edges. Bottom line, a crostata tastes just as good as a pie, and it's easier to make and serve. This particular one is even better, thanks to the brown butter. Here are some helpful tips for making the crostata:
- If you don't have a vanilla bean, they can be expensive, you can substitute either 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste. If you are using the vanilla extract, you do not need to simmer the maple syrup for 3 minutes prior to adding the apples (you can add them immediately after bringing to a simmer.) Vanilla bean paste is the seeds of the vanilla bean in a syrup or "paste" form. You can find a reasonably priced jar at Trader Joe's. I like to use it for recipes where the little specks of vanilla seeds stand out. It reminds me of Breyer's Vanilla Bean ice cream.
- It is not necessary to peel the apples for this recipe, but you certainly can peel them if you prefer to do so. You can also use two different kinds of apples, but make sure that at least one type is tart, such as a Granny Smith.
- When rolling out the dough for the crostata, in order to obtain a circle shape, I have found that the best method to use is as follows: On the floured surface, start with your rolling pin in the center of the dough and roll out straight ahead. Turn the dough 1/8 of a turn and roll out. Keep turning the dough 1/8 of a turn and rolling out until you get the size of a circle needed for the recipe. You may need to turn the dough over and re-flour the surface if it becomes too sticky, otherwise it may become tough to turn.
- If you don't have a food processor for making the dough, you can always work the butter in using either a pastry cutter or two forks.
Rustic Apple Crostata
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup ice water
Apple Filling and Streusel Topping
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 cup pure maple syrup
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
5 Granny Smith apples, cored and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water for the egg wash
Make the pastry: In a food processor, pulse the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is the size of small peas. Add the water and pulse until it begins to come together and form a dough. Turn the mixture out onto a work surface and gather the crumbs together. Shape it into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Make the filling and streusel: In a medium bowl, mix the flour with the walnuts, both sugars, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and the cinnamon. In a small saucepan, cook 5 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat until fragrant and golden brown in color, swirling occasionally, 2-3 minutes. Pour the browned butter over the walnut mixture and toss gently until crumbly. Refrigerate the streusel.
In a large skillet, bring the maple syrup, vanilla bean, and vanilla seeds to a simmer and cook over medium high heat for 3 minutes. Whisk in the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add half of the apples to the skillet and cook until they begin to soften, about 6 minutes. Transfer the apples to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Repeat with the remaining apples and let cool. Discard the vanilla bean and scrape the leftover pan juices into a bowl.
Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. On a lightly floured piece of parchment paper or work surface, roll out the pastry to a 15-inch circle, about 1/8 inch thick. Transfer to a baking sheet and then brush the egg wash in a 2-inch band around the edges of the dough. Spread the apples in the center (the portion without the egg wash) of the pastry. Fold the border up over them, leaving the center exposed. Sprinkle the streusel topping over the apples in the center and brush the pastry with the egg wash. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool slightly and then serve with vanilla ice cream drizzled with the reserved pan juices.