My husband and I recently took a trip to Louisville and were lucky enough to visit the famous Brown Hotel. The lobby bar there is known for its opulent Georgian-Revival styling and the eponymic “Hot Brown” sandwich, but our visit centered exclusively on drinks and dessert. The Kentucky Derby was approaching, so of course I had to try a mint julep in its hometown. But what truly blew me away was their decadent derby pie. It was such an unexpected delight that I knew Whisk Averse Baking needed to attempt a version, and so this derby bars recipe was born.Jump to Recipe
Derby pie – a recipe technically trademarked by the Kern family of Prospect, Kentucky – is a layered Southern treat laden with walnuts and chocolate chips. Traditionally the pie has an ordinary sweet shortcrust base, but at the Brown the crust struck me as slightly more robust, so I’ve tried to emulate it below with a delicate shortbread.
The blog Mother Would Know offered some great insight on techniques on how to transition this dessert from a pie into bars, and my recipe is adapted from her base, as well as this one from the Washington Post.
The second big change I’ve made with these derby bars is the use of browned butter. While this step is completely optional, it adds a significant depth of flavor to the bars that you won’t find in most other recipes. Sally’s Baking Addiction has a wonderful tutorial on how to perfect this process; my pictures below are not quite as helpful as hers, as the pan that I used for browning has a nonstick coating, making it difficult to see the caramelized butter bits.
The third and final deviation from tradition in this derby bars recipe: the addition of bourbon cream. What in the world is bourbon cream, you may ask? We were likewise naïve to this beverage prior to our trip to Louisville, but wow – it is something worth keeping on hand. The bottle we bought is produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery, and contains only Buffalo Trace bourbon, sugar, and full-fat cream.
While it was enjoyable enough to sip, this beverage can add a significant “oomph” to a wide variety of desserts, ranging from custard to brownies to – as you can see below – Derby Pie. The alcohol cooks out, leaving a subtle hint of rich oaked bourbon flavor. This addition is, again, optional – you can substitute either just bourbon or just cream in its place – but it’s definitely worthwhile.
(And no, this recipe isn’t sponsored. I’ve received no compensation or freebies from The Brown Hotel or Buffalo Trace Distillery for promoting them here; they just have excellent products. Though, if they wanted to send some free products for use in future recipes, I would be happy to participate.)
How to make derby bars
This derby bars recipe has three primary phases before the final bake: browning the butter, making the shortbread base, and preparing the filling. We’ll start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).
Place all three sticks of butter – so, both the butter for the shortbread and for the filling – in a saucepan over low/medium heat. Allow the butter to melt while you stir it continuously. Eventually the butter will develop a foam. Continue cooking while stirring for 8-10 minutes, removing from heat once some brown bits have developed on the bottom of the pan. Allow the butter to cool for 5-10 minutes while you prepare your remaining ingredients.
For best results, do as I say and not as I do and use a light-colored pan, so you can see the toasted milk solids at the bottom of your pan. By using a dark-colored pan, you run the risk of cooking your butter too long – and nobody wants to taste burned butter in their dessert.
As your browned butter is cooling, prepare your pan. Cut an extra-long piece of parchment paper – long enough so that it will hang over the sides of your 9″ by 13″ baking pan. Place it in your pan and grease the exposed sides to prevent your bars from sticking.
Sift together the flour, powdered sugar, and cornstarch for your shortbread crust. Stir in your vanilla bean paste and 1 cup of your browned butter until completely combined. The dough should be soft and smooth. Press this dough into your prepared pan and refrigerate for 20 minutes, to allow the butter to set up, and preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Once the dough is cool, bake the crust for 20 minutes.
While your shortbread crust is cooling and baking, prepare your filling. Get out your toasted walnuts and dice them to your ideal size. The size you see below – finely minced – will result in an almost imperceptible nut texture in the final product. If you like nuts to be more obvious in your dessert, don’t mince them this finely. (Again, not sponsored, but I love the Pampered Chef foood chopper for this. It’s the fastest and least-messy method I’ve found to chop small items, especially nuts.)
Combine your remaining cooled browned butter with the brown sugar and stir until creamy. Stir in eggs (one at a time) and your bourbon cream. Mix in flour, stopping once just combined, before adding the toasted walnuts. Set aside.
Now, your shortbread should be coming out of the oven shortly. While you wait, prepare the chocolate filling. I recommend using the highest quality chocolate you can for this dessert – which, unfortunately, means that store-brand chocolate chips are not ideal. I’ve found they don’t melt as consistently as name-brand chips or chopped-up chocolate bars. I used a mix of dark and milk chocolate bars, plus semi-sweet chips for the bars you see below.
Chop your chocolate bars into chip-sized pieces (or smaller). As soon as your shortbread crust comes out of the oven. Spread the chopped chocolate evenly over the surface of the warm shortbread. Use a knife or an offset spatula to carefully spread the chocolate around as it melts, ensuring an even layer of chocolate over all of the bars.
Once the chocolate is smooth, carefully place your walnut filing atop the chocolate.
Bake the derby bars at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until the center is just set. I recommend allowing to cool completely – 1-2 hours or longer – before using your parchment sling to remove them completely from the pan and slicing.
These derby bars are best served slightly warm (15 seconds in the microwave is perfect), garnished with powdered sugar and perhaps even a dollop of whipped cream. If you make them at home, please tag @WhiskAverseBaking in any pictures you post on social media, and leave a note in the comments below. I hope you enjoy them as much as we have!
Browned Butter Chocolate Walnut Derby Bars
- 9" x 13" pan
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup powdered sugar
- 1 cup browned butter
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
- 2 cups walnuts toasted (see note)
- ½ cup browned butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 tablespoons bourbon cream optional – see note
- ½ cup flour
- 8-10 oz. high-quality chocolate chopped (either a broken up bar, or name brand chocolate chips)
- Place three sticks of butter in a saucepan over low-medium heat. Stir constantly. Once melted, allow the butter cook for 7-12 minutes, until the butter is starting to turn slightly brown and develop a nutty smell. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
- While the butter is cooling, prepare your pan. Grease a 9” by 13” pan. Place an extra-long sheet of parchment into the pan lengthwise, with approximately 3 inches of overhang on either side.
- Sift powdered sugar, flour, and cornstarch into a mixing bowl. Stir in 1 cup of cooled browned butter and vanilla bean paste and mix until combined. Press into your prepared 9” by 13” pan and refrigerate for 20 minutes, allowing the butter to firm up, while you preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Once the dough has cooled, bake for 20 minutes.
- While the shortbread crust is baking, mice toasted walnuts to desired texture and set aside.
- Whisk your remaining ½ cup of browned butter together with brown sugar until creamy. Stir in eggs (one at a time) and bourbon cream. Mix in flour, stopping once just combined, before adding the toasted walnuts. Set aside.
- Immediately after removing the shortbread crust from oven, sprinkle chocolate chunks over its warm surface. Use a knife or offset spatula to spread chocolate in an even layer across the surface of the shortbread.
- Carefully and evenly sprinkle walnut mixture atop layer of chocolate.
- Bake at 350 degrees F for 20-27 minutes, until the center is just set. Allow to cool completely (approximately 2 hours) before using the parchment sling to remove from pan. Slice and serve.
- Toasting walnuts is an optional but worthwhile way to make the flavor in these bars pop. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and spread your walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 4-5 minutes, stir with a spatula, and bake for another 4-5 minutes. Allow to cool while preparing the rest of your ingredients.
- Bourbon cream is an optional specialty ingredient. You may substitute with 1 tablespoon of bourbon plus one tablespoon of cream – though if doing so, you should add the bourbon to your batter last, to avoid causing any of your dairy products to curdle. You could also omit the bourbon altogether and just use heavy cream or milk.