Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Brown Butter Pear Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate

I’ve heard and read about people who rave of the flavors of brown butter. People describe it as nutty and intense and fragrant. And yet I didn’t get around to experimenting with it until now. I know. I hang my head in shame as I write this.

But it was so worth the wait. Brown butter is everything people promise it to be and more. It is sophisticated and full of character, it amazes me to think that it is the product of just a little heat, love, and stirring. It has a deep nutty fragrance to it and it tastes vaguely sweet, with a hint of something that I just can’t put my finger on, but it reminds me of childhood. If foods could taste like feelings, brown butter tastes like being five years old again and being allowed to have a cookie before dinner. Yes. It is that good.

And this recipe uses it beautifully.

This Brown Butter Pear Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate is the perfect thing for winter. It is airy and light, but also warm, with all the flavors of the season. It smells like heaven, and it the perfect thing for eating slowly, bite by bite, with your eyes half-closed. No need for background music or conversation. Just a plate, a fork, and maybe, if you're feeling decadent, some lightly sweetened whipped cream (perhaps with a drop or two of almond extract).

Because I was feeling particularly fancy the day I made this, I also sliced some Forelle pears, caramelized them in butter and topped the cake with these slices. It was the definition of lovely.

Brown Butter Pear Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
½ to 1 tsp cinnamon
3 eggs
8 tbsp salted butter
¾ cup sugar
2-3 tsp vanilla sugar
¼ tsp salt + a dash more
3 pears, peeled, in a small dice (I would recommend a softer variety, like Barlett or Forelle)
½ to ¾ cup good quality dark chocolate chunks

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Sift together flour and baking powder.

Brown the butter. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and cook until the butter browns and smells nutty (7 to 8 minutes). Be sure to stir frequently to allow for even browning. It’s okay if the butter foams up a lot and appears to “separate”—this is normal.
The butter should be a deep nutty brown color. If not sufficiently browned, the butter won't impart the same flavor profile. (At the same time, make sure you aren’t burning your butter)
After the butter is done browning, removing from heat and allow to cool a bit.

While the butter is browning, whip the eggs on high speed for at least seven minutes, until very thick. For sufficient volume, nine minutes is even better.

Add the sugar to the eggs and whip a few minutes more (about 3 minutes).

Stop the mixer and add the flour mixture and brown butter, altering so that some flour is layered with some butter (i.e. one third of the flour mixture, half of the butter, one third of the flour, remaining butter, and the rest of flour). Whisk until barely combined and then use a spatula to gently fold the batter until the ingredients are combined. Do not over-whisk or fold the batter, or it will lose volume!

Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle the pear and chocolate chunks over the top, and bake until the cake is golden brown and springs back to the touch, about 45 to 50 minutes, or a tester comes out clean.

Note: I used Noir de Noir Cote D'Or Chocolate, which is this amazing dark chocolate that isn't very sweet and has a lower percent cocoa butter than most chocolates, and it worked out beautifully. If you have something similar, go for that. You really want to use quality chocolate here.

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