Friday, January 4, 2013

Brown Butter Pecan Cornmeal Cake


After more than a week of too much food--who am I kidding? A month of it, if the snugness of my jeans is to be trusted--the last thing any of us wanted was a cake. But birthdays are birthdays, and they absolutely require cake. Especially when the birthday belongs to my mother, and I can't help but always feel a little sad for the Christmas Day baby who spends the day watching everyone else open presents. I like my birthday all to myself, thank you very much.


But after so much feasting, most of my go-to cake recipes just seemed wrong. Too much fluff, or too much frosting, or too much butterfat. I love buttercream as much as the next girl, but not right after three holidays dinners in a row. We needed something plainer, something simpler, but something still special.

Running through my mental repertoire of cake recipes that might fit the bill brought up a beauty of a lemon polenta cake, but the idea of transporting a sticky syrup-soaked tin 35 kilometres by bus seemed like a Very.Bad.Idea. Especially considering that I am a very big klutz. Did I ever tell you the story of the clementine cake batter that ended up in the bottom of the oven? No? We'll save that one for another day.

From lemon cake my mind wandered over to lemon tart, but tarts (I'm sure you'll agree with me) are not birthday cake, as hard as they might try. And somewhere at the intersection of thoughts of another tart-like creation--the ever-so-delicious bourbon pecan squares I made just before Christmas--and the contents of my freezer, I remembered this: brown butter cornmeal pecan cake. The ground nuts and cornmeal of the lemon polenta cake meet the nutty richness of brown butter and the crispy-chewy edges of a good financier. Oh yes. Financiers need to make an appearance here sometime very soon. Done and done.

Along with the lack of syrup and its generous size--this baby easily serves twelve--this cake also wins major party favours for its ease of assembly. A blitz, a bubble, a stir, and you're done. The recipe even builds in time for a nap--a three-hour rest in the fridge so that the cornmeal can absorb all of that delicious butter and swell into a thick and sticky batter that smelled so good as it baked it was all I could do not to prop the oven door open and stick my head in.

If you're not a fan of naps, it might also be a good time to go have a cup of coffee. With Bailey's, perhaps.


Toasted pecans and brown butter go together like Elizabeth and Darcy--they bring out the best in each other, coming together to create something mellow, rich, and softly sweet. For all my protestations of cake austerity, this cake looks plainer than plain, but tastes like a dream. The twelve days of Christmas aren't over until Sunday. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. The cornmeal I used was warmly yellow and finely ground; it stays in the background, accenting the slight crunch of the pecans with a subtler grittiness. The sweetness comes not so much from the sugar as from the deep, mouth-filling flavour of golden corn and nuts. The contrast of the crisp top and edges with the crumbly-chewy middle is textural perfection. You can thank the egg whites and icing sugar for those gorgeous edges, since I realized as soon as my fork hit my mouth that this recipe is basically a financier--those beautiful little rectangular almond cakes with the crisp crust and chewy centres--sent to the deep South and made big. The original recipe bakes up into twelve little cakes, instead of one big one, but the change in proportions was no loss at all--this cake is taller than those little ones would be, and it's all the more impressive for it.

Oh, and one more thing--do me a favour and serve the cake with a big bowl of whipped cream lightly sweetened with maple syrup and spiked with a shot of bourbon. You'll thank me later.

Brown Butter Pecan Cornmeal Cake

Adapted from The New York Times, via Smitten Kitchen

9 ounces unsalted butter, plus extra for the pan
1 cup pecans, toasted in a large skillet over medium-low heat until fragrant and browned, and cooled
2 cups icing sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
8 egg whites
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons white or yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup whipping cream, whipped with 2 tablespoons maple syrup and a glug of bourbon, to serve

In a small pot, simmer the butter over low heat until it smells nutty and the solids at the bottom of the pan have turned a deep golden brown, about 10 minutes. I find that stirring lots makes me less nervous about burning it. Use your nose; you can also use your spoon to push away some of the foam on top and peer down at the colour of the butter underneath. When the butter is browned, pour through a small strainer into a clean container and set aside to cool slightly. 

Meanwhile, pulse the pecans, icing sugar, and granulated sugar together in the food processor until the nuts are finely ground. 

In the bottom of a large bowl (preferably one with a lid), whisk together the egg whites and vanilla, just to combine. Add the rest of the dry ingredients, then pour over the brown butter. Stir together until well combined. Refrigerate for at least three hours, or overnight. 

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Thickly butter the sides of an 11-inch springform pan; lightly butter the bottom. Line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.* Spoon and dollop the now-thick batter into the pan, smoothing out the top with the back of a wet spoon. You might want to give the whole thing a few bangs on the counter to get out any air bubbles and even things out a bit. 

Bake for an hour, or until the top is darkly golden and a cake tester inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes on a rack, then run a small knife or offset spatula around the edge of the cake and release it from the pan. Remove the bottom and cool the rest of the way. Serve with the maple-bourbon whipped cream. 

* There are two ways of cutting a parchment circle for a springform pan. One is to trace around the bottom of the pan, and cut a circle inside of the traced line. The other is to tear off a piece of parchment that is slightly larger than your pan. Fold it in half, then in half again, and again, and again. And maybe again. Place the pointy tip in the centre of the pan and snip off the end of the paper just inside the line the edge of the pan. Unfold the paper, and voila! You have a perfectly-sized parchment circle. 

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