Tory Miller, the James Beard Award-winning chef of L'Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin, says the state's best pears arrive in late fall. Those prime specimens provided inspiration for this buttermilk cake topped with wine-poached Bartletts. An alternative to the heavy, spice-laden desserts that dominate the season, it's the ideal end to Miller's favorite feast: standing rib roast, root vegetable gratin and a side of gnocchi with brown butter, sweet potatoes and sage, eagerly spooned up by Miller's young son Remy.
Buttermilk Cake with Riesling Poached Pears and Sweetened Créme Fraîche
Recipe adapted from Tory Miller, L'Etoile, Madison, WI
Yield: One 9-inch cake
Cook Time: 40 minutes, plus 2 hours cooling time
3 cups sweet white wine (such as Riesling)
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
One 3-inch-strip orange zest, any white pith scraped away
3 whole star anise pods
6 medium, ripe Bartlett pears--peeled, halved and cored
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 stick plus ½ tablespoon unsalted butter (8½ tablespoons), divided and at room temperature
2 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Zest of 1 lemon
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
4 large egg yolks
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
2/3 cup buttermilk, shaken
Vanilla Crème Fraîche
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup crème fraîche
¼ cup confectioners' sugar
1. Make the pears: To a large saucepan set over high heat, add the wine, water, sugar, orange zest, star anise pods and pear halves. Lay the vanilla bean halves on a cutting board and use the tip of a paring knife to scrape away the seeds; add the seeds and vanilla bean halves to the pan and bring to a boil, turn off the heat and cover the pan. Set the pears aside to cool completely, about 1 hour (a fork should slide easily through the pears). Transfer the pears and liquid to an airtight container and refrigerate.
2. Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°. Set a 9-inch round cake pan on top of a piece of parchment paper and trace a circle around it. Cut out the circle. Grease the cake pan with ½ tablespoon of the butter, place the parchment circle in the pan, press it down, then lift and turn it over so both sides of the parchment circle are buttered. Place a fine-mesh sieve over a medium bowl, add the flour and baking powder and sift into the bowl. Add the salt and lemon zest and whisk to combine.
3. To the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the remaining 8 tablespoons of butter and the granulated sugar and brown sugar. Beat on medium-high speed until the mixture is light and airy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well between additions and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, then mix in the vanilla extract. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and alternate adding the flour mixture and buttermilk in three additions, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake, rotating the pan halfway through baking, until the center of the cake resists light pressure and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer the cake in the pan to a wire rack and cool until the pan is cool enough to hold. Run a paring knife around the edges of the cake and invert the cake onto a parchment paper-lined plate or baking sheet and cool completely.
4. While the cake cools, make the vanilla crème fraîche: Lay the vanilla bean halves on a cutting board and use the tip of a paring knife to remove the seeds. Place the seeds into a medium bowl. Add the vanilla extract and the crème fraîche. Set a fine-mesh sieve over the bowl and sift the confectioners' sugar through the sieve. Use a rubber spatula to gently combine the mixture.
5. Slice the cake into 12 equal-size slices and serve each slice with a pear half and some of the sweetened crème fraîche.
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