Are you ever gripped with the urge to suddenly clean out your freezer, your cupboards, your crisping drawers? To use up those last nuts knocking around in an empty plastic bag, finally finish off that half-portion of arborio rice driving you batty since 2007, and at last get around to cooking the untouched box of chow mein noodles you'd completely forgotten about since it went and hid behind the Creole mustard, the organic millet and the half-eaten bar of dark chocolate in the bottom cupboard?
I'm on that kick right now and I've got it bad. I made Brandon's citrus-soy noodles the other night (and lo, they were delicious - more on that next time), deftly using up some old Chinese noodles and the last dregs of a jar of chile-garlic paste. I've had a stockpile of French sardines for host(ess) gifts cluttering the kitchen and I've been making good on giving them away. (Do you know a sardine lover? Buy them Connétable sardines the next time you're in Paris or if you were at Balducci's during its final days when they were practically giving away food. This is a good present, I promise.) I've thrown those final aforementioned rice grains in soups, am scheming for ways to get rid of some frozen pork neck bones from Connecticut, and cannot wait for a week's worth of morning blueberry-buttermilk smoothies, so I can finally throw out the darn Wyman's bag mocking me every time I open the freezer.
Luckily for you, the nicest thing about this weird mania is the recipe I made using up the last two cups of pecans I'd been hoarding for what was probably far too much time. It comes from Donna Deane when she was still at the LA Times, and is the loveliest, subtlest tea cake I've had in a while. Elegant and demure and delicious to boot, it features browned butter and toasted pecans suspended in a tender, sour cream-enriched cake.
I brought it to a Memorial Day picnic yesterday where it was eaten with gusto (at one point, two attendees were actually simply forking pieces of it out of the tin), praised by a chef, and then taken home by a friend who wanted to serve the leftovers as dessert at the end of a business meal last night. Great success! I'd say.
The most complicated thing about the recipe is making brown butter. And that's really not too hard. That is, cooking it isn't hard, it's knowing when to stop that's tricky. Kind of like caramel, only it moves faster. What you do is put a stick of butter in a small, heavy pan and set it over medium heat. When the butter melts, start whisking it and keep it over that same steady heat. Don't move away from the stove. After a few minutes, the molten butter will start to change color. It will foam and you might have a hard time seeing the liquid beneath. Just keep whisking. Pretty quickly thereafter, the butter will go from foamy and bright yellow to tan and then brown. You'll see little spots, which are the milk solids that have browned, and your kitchen will smell rather rich and toasty. Turn the heat off and try to get a good look at the butter. What you want is for it to be nicely browned and smelling delicious. You don't want blackened butter. And it's kind of a fine line between the two. So, if you feel like your browned butter is still cooking in that hot, heavy pot, even with the heat turned off, simply pour it into a heat-proof mixing bowl. That'll pretty much stop the cooking process.
The recipe has you chill that molten brown butter and then whip it with brown sugar until "light and fluffy". But that didn't happen at all for me. The brown butter and sugar just kept going around and around in the bowl, dark and granular. The minute I added the eggs, however, things got gorgeously light and fluffy. So keep that in mind when you make this. Oh, another thing: my compulsion to use things up apparently also means that I'm loathe to replace a thing when I'm done with it. Which would be fine if we were talking about something exotic, like black quinoa, but is sort of silly when it comes to a kitchen staple like vanilla extract. So, since I didn't have any vanilla extract in the house, I substituted almond extract and though I worried that mixing the nut flavors would be rather strange, I loved it. It's very subtle - there's only 1/2 teaspoon in the recipe.
What you end up with is this gorgeous, fluffy batter and a knobby pile of pecan-brown sugar streusel, which you basically layer in a loaf pan. The bread rises nicely in the oven, though it doesn't ever dome and crack. After it's been taken out and cooled and sliced up, what you have is a finely-crumbed cake shot through with nubby pecans and delicate brown-butter flavor. It really is rather refined, this loaf, and is the kind of thing you could easily serve to your future mother-in-law at your first tea together, or at a rowdy Brooklyn picnic with 11-month-olds doing their best to grab ahold of it while you shriek rather ineffectually that they should keep away from the tree nuts, for crying out loud.
Pecan Brown-Butter Bread
Makes 1 9-inch loaf
1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, divided
2 cups shelled pecans, divided
2 cups flour plus 1 1/2 teaspoons, divided
1 1/3 cups packed brown sugar, divided
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Melt one-half cup butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat. After it melts, continue to cook, whisking until it turns nut brown, about 8 minutes. Remove the browned butter from the heat and cool, then refrigerate until it solidifies, about 30 to 40 minutes.
2. While the browned butter is chilling, put the pecans on a jellyroll pan in a single layer and toast them in the oven 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the nuts from the oven and cool in the pan, then roughly chop them so the pieces are no larger than one-fourth inch.
3. For the pecan streusel filling, combine one-half cup chopped toasted pecans, 1 1/2 teaspoons flour, and one-third cup brown sugar. Work the remaining 2 tablespoons butter into the sugar mixture until it is crumbly; do not over mix.
4. Cream together the chilled browned butter and the remaining 1 cup brown sugar until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then beat in the almond or vanilla extract.
5. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the brown butter mixture alternately with the sour cream, folding each addition in gently by hand. Stir in the remaining 1 1/2 cups chopped toasted pecans, just until ingredients are mixed.
6. Spoon half the batter into the bottom of a well-buttered 9-inch loaf pan. Sprinkle the streusel filling evenly over the batter. Spoon the remaining batter over the filling and spread evenly. Bake 55 to 60 minutes or until the bread tests done in the center; note that the streusel filling will remain moist throughout the baking process. Remove to a wire rack and let cool to warm. Serve warm or at room temperature.