Friday, February 11, 2011
You know, the truth is, I'm not all that into brand-name restaurants. I haven't been to many of them here in NYC, partly because I can't really afford it, and partly because I prefer my little French bistro where (literally) everyone knows my name. But there are exceptions. The French Laundry in Napa Valley is definitely on my bucket list, as is Per Se in New York and The Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. All fantasies for the foreseeable future. Another one on the in-fantasy-only list is Lucques Restaurant in West Hollywood. Lucky for me, basically all of these restaurants, or the fancy-pants chefs behind them, have cookbooks.
So if I ever do find myself at Lucques, I would be extremely excited to see this cake on their menu. I mean, it's so good that Suzanne Goin, the chef behind Lucques, used it as her wedding cake. Her wedding cake. As someone who took a pretty significant interest in her own wedding cake, I can attest to the fact that choosing the recipe is quite an endorsement.
And this is absolutely the perfect moment to make it. It's winter, which is no fun (at least not at this point. Winter, I'm done with you!), so not much in the way of fresh produce is in season. But you can get delicious pears, and you can make them more delicious by sauteing them in butter and a split vanilla bean. I mean, seriously.
Plus the cake itself is just so good. It looks much denser than it really is. Although it's definitely not the sky-high, light and springy type all-American cake usually the stuff of weddings. It's a rich, chewy, but still somehow light and melty mixture of egg whites, just a touch of flour and ground hazelnuts. So if you have a special occasion coming up, Valentine's day for example, and you've decided to pass on the reservations, you can still give your sweetheart a little Lucques. And if you're sweetheart-less, screw Valentine's day and just eat the thing yourself.
Hazelnut-Brown Butter Cake with Sautéed Pears
Adopted from Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques
For the cake:
5 ounces hazelnuts
1/2 pound unsalted butter
1/2 vanilla bean
1 1/3 cups confectioners' sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
5 extra-large egg whites
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream, whipped for serving
Oven preheated to 350F
Toast the hazelnuts by spreading them on a baking sheet and baking them for 12-15 minutes. Take them out of the oven, and when they're cool enough to handle, rub the skins off. Grind them into a fine powder in a food processor along with the confectioners' sugar. Add the flour and pulse a few times to combine. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
Cut out a circle of parchment paper to fit the bottom of a 10" cake pan. Grease the pan, lay the circle inside, grease again, and set aside.
Put the butter in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla been in half and using the tip of a knife, scoop out the seeds onto the butter. Add the vanilla pod to the pan and turn the heat on to medium. Melt the butter until it begins to brown and smells nutty. Watch it closely, because it goes from brown to black in moments. Set aside to cool and remove the vanilla pod.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, put the egg whites and the granulated sugar. Whip on high speed for 4-5 minutes until stiff peaks form. Fold the dry ingredients alternating with the brown butter into the egg whites, in thirds. Fold gently with a plastic spatula.
Pour the batter into the cake pan and bake for 1 hour. Cool on a rack for 20 minutes before removing from the cake pan.
For the sautéed pears:
2 pounds Bartlett pears
1/2 vanilla bean
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Cut the pears lengthwise, and then cut each half into 1 inch wedges, but don't remove the core.
Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds as you did for the cake, smearing them on the butter.
Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes, then add the vanilla-smeared butter as well as the vanilla pod to the pan. The butter will start to foam, and when it does, place the pear wedges in the pan cut side down. If your pan isn't large enough to accommodate all of the pears (which mine definitely wasn't) you might have to do this in two batches. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over the pears, shaking the pan to distribute the sugar so that it caramelizes in the butter.
Cook the pears about 6 minutes, spooning the juices and butter over them if you can as they cook. They should be caramelized on the first side by this time, so flip them over to the other cut side and continue to cook for another 3-4 minutes. Baste if there is enough liquid in the pan. Spoon the pears over the cake slices and top with whipped cream.