Courtesy Russell Cronkhite
Russell Cronkhite was executive chef at Blair House from 1988-99.
A Return to Sunday Dinner by Russell Cronkhite
For a dozen years, Russell Cronkhite presided over the kitchen at Washington, D.C.'s Blair House, the official guest residence for world leaders when they're visiting the U.S. president. Regional American foods were often on the menu. NPR's Susan Stamberg continues her series on food, with a talk with the former executive chef.
Below is Russell Cronkhite's recipe for molasses pecan cake with burnt-sugar frosting, from his book, A Return to Sunday Dinner (Multnomah Publishers).
Molasses Pecan Cake with Burnt-Sugar Frosting
Author's Note: There has to be one recipe more challenging than the rest in every cookbook and this is it. Butter-rich, densely textured, with a gooey-nutty caramel flavor — this is some kind of cake!
3 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup strong-brewed coffee
1 cup finely ground pecans
Adjust the rack to the center of the oven and preheat to 350° F.
Make the Cake:
—First, butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans with 2-inch sides, tapping out the excess flour.
—Second, sift the cake flour, baking powder and salt into a small bowl and set aside.
—Third, thoroughly cream the butter with the granulated sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy, 6 to 8 minutes. Beat in the molasses and vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
—Fourth, with the mixer running at low speed, alternately add the flour mixture and strong-brewed coffee in batches, beginning and ending with the flour; mix until each addition of flour is fully combined. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 1 minute, then gently fold in the ground pecans.
—Fifth, divide the batter evenly between the 2 pans and bake until the cakes are beginning to shrink from the edges of the pans and the centers spring back when pressed gently, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to baking racks and cool for 10 minutes. Loosen the cakes from their pans by running a thin knife around the edges, then turn out onto the racks to cool completely.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
5 large egg yolks, room temperature (reserve egg whites for frosting)
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups (6 ounces) roughly chopped pecans
2/3 cup toasted flaked coconut
Make the Filling:
—First, combine the butter, egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk in a stainless mixing bowl or in the top of a double boiler. Beat with a stiff wire whisk or an electric hand-held mixer until smooth.
—Second, place the mixing bowl over a pan of simmering water (do not let the bowl touch the water) and stir constantly to fully melt the butter. As the butter melts, the mixture will become thin; continue to cook the filling, stirring continually, until it thickens to the consistency of thick custard, about 12 minutes. Stir in the vanilla, then beat for 1 minute with an electric hand-held mixer set at medium speed. Fold in the chopped pecans and coconut; cool. (Note: The filling can be made a day ahead and refrigerated.)
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup superfine sugar
5 large egg whites, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup boiling water
Make the Frosting:
—First, beat the butter until light and fluffy; set aside. Combine the superfine sugar, unbeaten egg whites and cream of tartar in a double boiler set over a pan of simmering water. Whisk by hand until the sugar is dissolved and the whites are warm, thick and frothy, about 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a mixer and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, about 3 minutes.
—Second, heat the granulated sugar in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat until it begins to melt around the edges. Stir with a wooden spoon, breaking up any large pieces that form, until all the crystals have dissolved and the liquid is amber in color. Carefully begin pouring the 1/2 cup boiling water over the sugar, a little at a time to avoid splattering. As you pour, the melted sugar will bubble rapidly; stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Continue cooking over medium-high heat until the liquid reaches 240° F and has achieved the consistency of syrup, 2 to 3 minutes.
—Third, slowly pour the sugar syrup into the beaten egg white mixture in a slow, steady stream; avoid pouring the sugar syrup onto the beaters. Beat at medium-high speed until the frosting begins to cool and firm peaks start to form, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
—Fourth, add in the beaten butter 1/3 at a time, beating well after each addition. If the first addition of butter begins to melt, cool a little longer, then continue mixing until the frosting is smooth and creamy.
Assemble the Cake:
Use a sharp serrated knife to split each of the cake layers in half horizontally. Put one of the layers on a cake plate and spread 1/3 of the filling over it. Top with a second layer, spread with 1/3 more filling, and repeat once more, using all of the filling in the process. Top with the fourth layer, then frost the top and sides of the cake with the cooled burnt-sugar frosting.
Note: This cake is best when it is made the day before and kept at moderate room temperature, covered.