I spend a ridiculous amount of time falling in love with recipes from the title alone and then talking myself out of making them. Take this Pecan Cornmeal Butter Cake recipe run alongside a New York Times article about Durham, North Carolina, where hundreds of acres that were once used to grow tobacco have been transitioned to sprout peas, strawberries, fennel and artichokes, and that now house chickens, lambs, rabbits and cows. The warehouses once used to dry tobacco are being converted to art studios, bio labs and radio stations. You know, because I didn’t have enough reasons to love North Carolina.
I fell instantly in love. Delicious sounding title? Check. Great story? Check. A good fit with my South infatuation that flares up every time the sun comes out? Check. A recipe not tied to a season we’re not in? Check. The word ‘butter,’ anywhere? Oh check. So why didn’t I make this a month ago? It uses eight egg whites. (Boo to the better part of a dozen leftover egg yolks.) It calls for white cornmeal, which despite my hunting, I was unable to find in New York City, or frankly anywhere above the Mason-Dixon line. (I know I could mail order it but I dug my heels in; I can buy eight different types of mozzarella at my local bodega but not white cornmeal? I am spoiled.) It calls for 10 4-inch tartlet pans, which I have, because I’m insane (even my son agrees), but know that the vast majority of home cooks do not, because they are not.
And so I decided not to. Then decided to. Then decided not to. And then on Monday morning it was raining and gross and I was looking for excuses to avoid going to the grocery store and I started fiddling with the recipe. Halving it would only require four egg whites, and I have enough yellow cornmeal to try a different cornbread recipe every week this summer. (Guys, I just got the best idea!) And what if I got to keep the pretty-prettiness of a fluted tart pan but baked it in a more popular size, a 9-inch?
If you ignore the fact that my cake became glued to the pan (don’t worry, I’ll encourage you to parchment-line it) and forgive me for completely burying the lede here, hot damn, people, this cake is something else, something spectacular. Oh, it’s nothing much to look at — especially as both the crumb and yellow cornmeal make it actually look like cornbread — but to taste it is to know that something wonderful has come to pass. Butter has been browned. Pecans have been toasted until dark and caramelized. The vanilla makes the brown butter more bourbon-y, the pecans more brown sugar-y. The egg whites keep it from laying heavy in your mouth and the impact of the flavor is such that it needs to be the thin cake it is, attacked with barely-sweetened whipped cream and sliced strawberries. This cake has a lot in common with another cake I’ve raved about, the Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake, but just follow me here, I think brown butter is an even better match for pecans and berries than I once thought it was for hazelnuts and chocolate. Or maybe that’s just summer and berry season, distracting me. I’m not complaining.
Just to give you a heads-up, there’s a 3-hour wait built into this recipe; this time really softens up the cornmeal so its texture is less of an interruption. As always, I missed this step when planning my day, got to step four and *bleep*-ed a few times at the page. Don’t do what I did.
9 tablespoons (4.5 ounces) unsalted butter, plus extra for pans
1/2 cup pecans, toasted (350°F for 10 to 13 minutes, or until browned) and cooled
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus extra for berries (optional)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
7 tablespoons white or yellow cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Berries, for serving
Ice cream or whipped cream, for serving.
In a small pan, cook the butter until it browns and smells nutty (about 6 to 8 minutes). It helps to frequently scrape the solids off the bottom of the pan in the last couple minutes to ensure even browning. Strain and set aside to cool.
In a food processor, pulse pecans, confectioners’ and granulated sugar until powdery. Whisk together flour, baking powder, cornmeal and salt in a large bowl and add pecan-sugar mixture to this.
In a small bowl, whisk the egg whites and vanilla together, just to combine. Whisk this and the browned butter into the dry ingredients. Refrigerate batter at least three hours or overnight.
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Thickly butter the sides of a 9-inch round fluted tart pan, or 9-inch springform. Line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Please. My gut told me to do this and I ignored it, following the recipe, and the cake stuck terribly.
Bake until golden and a tester comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool 10 to 15 minutes in pan, then turn out on a rack. Serve topped with berries (which you can macerate with a little sugar for a few minutes) and softly whipped cream.