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Three-Tier Candied-Pecan Cake with Brown-Butter Pears

December 4, 2011

Shame on me!  As I was preparing my recipes for Christmas, I realized I’d never shared my Thanksgiving dessert.  Since it is fairly non-traditional to have a cake at the Thanksgiving table, however, I trust you will find another application for this wonderful recipe.  Now, despite the fact that Martha Stewart and I have had our cake differences in the past, a friend and I were drooling over this recipe in her Thanksgiving magazine this fall.  So I decided, the heck with pumpkin pie.  This recipe has all of the important autumnal flavors–cinnamon! nutmeg!  God help us, brown butter!–and sounded special enough for my Thanksgiving table.  Keep in mind that dessert was my only job this Thanksgiving, so I was prepared to spend all morning making it a humdinger.

And indeed it was.  The cake took a couple of KitchenAid mixers and a couple of baking and pastry students: first you candy the pecans in the oven; cream the butter and sugar; sift the dry ingredients and incorporate them; whip your egg whites and sugar to soft peaks before folding them into the cake batter.

Then you choose the biggest, prettiest plate you can find in the dorms.  And start stacking.

And then you just keep going.  Don’t you love the massive height of this cake, and the little brown butter pear sticking its tongue out?  Unlike your typical boring cake, this one is downright cheeky.

Compared to piped rosettes and filigree patterns and royal icing flowers and crumb coats, the construction of this cake is simple, elegant deliciousness.

As strange as it was to have a cake on the table in lieu of pumpkin pie, I think this cake has all of the elements for a great fall dessert, which means Martha is slowly sidling back onto my good side.



Three-Tier Candied-Pecan Cake with Brown-Butter Pears

Adapted, just barely, from Martha Stewart

The main change I made was to increase the amount of pears in the filling and dice them up, which I think made it easier to layer them in.  Martha also says that you can make the cake up to three days in advance, but I found that the cake got a little dry over time, since there’s no whipped cream or other frosting covering the sides to keep in the moisture.  To combat this problem, I would suggest using some of the extra brown butter sauce as you are assembling the dessert to moisten the cake with a pastry brush–the most delicious bits were the brown butter-soaked parts, after all!

Candied Pecans:

[feel free to make extra pecans to keep around for sprinkling on yogurt, salads, or just for snacking!]

2 cups chopped pecans

3 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature

1/4 c. packed light brown sugar

1 Tbsp vanilla

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp nutmeg


3/4 c. unsalted butter, room temperature

3 c. all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1 3/4 c. granulated sugar, divided

1 c. + 2 Tbsp milk [I used fat-free and it turned out fine]

3 large egg whites [I used two XL egg whites]

Pear Filling:

4 Tbsp unsalted butter

5-6 Anjou pears (depending on their size), peeled, cored, and diced

Whipped Cream Topping:

3/4 c. chilled heavy cream

2 Tbsp bourbon, or vanilla

1 Tbsp confectioner’s sugar

Garnish: 1/3 c. chopped pecans

1. Candy the pecans: Preheat the oven to 400º.  Toss toasted pecans with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg on a rimmed baking sheet.  Roast, stirring to coat halfway through, until toasted, about 10 minutes.  Let cool.

2. Reduce oven temperature to 350º.  Make the cake: Butter three 8-inch round cake pans  and dust with flour, tapping out excess.  Sift flour, baking powder, and 1/2 tsp salt into a bowl.  Beat butter and 1 1/4 c granulated sugar with a mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with milk, beginning and ending with flour.  Stir in candied pecans.

3. Beat egg whites in a clean bowl with a mixer on high speed until frothy.  Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.  Gently fold one-third of the egg whites into the batter using a rubber spatula.  Fold in remaining egg whites in 2 additions.

4. Divide batter among pans.  Bake until cakes are set and a toothpick inserted into the center of each comes out clean, about 30 minutes.  Let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.  Turn out caked onto racks, and let cool completely.

5. Meanwhile, make the pear filling: Brown butter in a skillet over medium heat, about 5 minutes.  (The butter should be nice and dark with a nutty smell).  Add the pears and cook them, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 6 minutes.

6. Make the bourbon whipped cream: Whisk cream, bourbon, and confectioners’ sugar with a mixer on medium-high speed until soft peaks form.

7. If your cakes are very uneven, trim the tops of the cakes to create a level surface using a serrated knife.  Transfer the first cake to a platter.  Spread half of the pears on top, almost to the edge of the cake.  Don’t be concerned about the brown butter sauce soaking into the cake; the more, the merrier!  Top with a second cake and spread the remaining pears on top.  Top with the last cake.  If you have any brown butter sauce remaining, use a pastry brush to brush it on the sides and top of the cake.  Spread the whipped cream over the top in a tall layer and garnish with chopped pecans.

Napa Valley in all its autumnal glory. Take that, East Coast!


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