Last month, I read chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef for a local food-themed book club. (Columbusites, check it out here!) I had never heard of PRUNE or Gabrielle Hamilton until I picked up the memoir, so I had no preconceptions. While the book (and, consequently, Gabrielle Hamilton herself) was the source of much controversy and debate, I wound up on the pro-Hamilton side of the discussion. Sure, there were some things she did or said that I don’t agree with or found offensive, but isn’t that the point of reading someone else’s memoir? I love experiencing the world through someone else’s point of view, comparing our human triumphs and failings. The book is also an absolutely gorgeous piece of writing, and I highly recommend it.
At the book club, the discussion leaders had made several recipes out of the PRUNE cookbook, which was published just this past November. We had radishes with butter, cornichons, cheese, hard boiled eggs, fingerling potatoes, and butter & sugar sandwiches. And wine! But someone had made a cornmeal pound cake (with no pears) that I swooned over. I wanted to eat more of it, but in a room of mostly strangers, I held back.
After the book club, I picked up a copy of the PRUNE cookbook from the library. It’s a fascinating cookbook with the recipes written for a PRUNE chef, handwritten notes and all. The pages even have fake dirty smudges which I found myself absentmindedly trying to wipe off. I found this recipe and, in the words of Sarah Jessica Park, I had to have it. I intended to make it a few weeks ago when I came across Forelle pears on the eve of Valentine’s Day in the “fancy” grocery store. But I got really busy and a little fearful of this recipe, so they sat on my countertop, getting past the point of perfect ripeness, until I finally had to make them into baby food for Nolan.
I went back to the fancy store expecting to find the same little, beautiful Forelle pears again, but they were nowhere to be found, and I cursed myself. I did find another small pear variety: Seckel pears. They aren’t as pretty as the Forelles, and their stems are short and stubby, and they are generally rounder. And probably different in more substantial ways (flavor, sweetness, texture). I guess that’s what I get for dragging my feet.
I tried my hardest to find nice-looking rosemary that isn’t “bushy,” as the cookbook instructed, but even the upscale grocery store only sells the kind of rosemary sprigs that are squashed into a plastic clamshell package, so I made due. My only other departure from the recipe, as it is written, is that I used a 4×9-inch loaf pan instead of a 4×13-inch pan (I suspect an uncovered Pullman loaf pan, though it isn’t specifically indicated). Consequently, I had to increase the baking time a bit.
The entire time I was making this recipe, I couldn’t help but feel an immense pressure, as if Gabrielle Hamilton were watching over my shoulder disapprovingly. Phantom Gabrielle was cursing at my brown-spotted pears, my peeling technique, my unsophisticated rosemary sprigs. I imagined her yelling orders at me, firing me. I even felt keenly aware that she would probably strongly dislike me on a personal level if we were ever to meet. Based on her book, the title of “food blogger” would likely garner a considerable amount of disdain from the chef.
But when I took a bite of the final product, it didn’t matter that my pears had developed brown oxidization stripes on the sides that weren’t submerged in the syrup during cooling. (I forgot to leave the parchment lid on.) And I stopped caring about earning the respect of Phantom Gabrielle Hamilton. (Not. Gonna. Happen.) Because this dessert tasted phenomenal! And there is something to be said about artistically plating a dessert that you’re just going to eat on your sofa in sweatpants. While getting slobbery baby kisses from a little guy who waited very patiently while you poached pears.
- 1 cup (225 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1⅓ cups (270 grams) granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 5 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup (120 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (145 grams) cornmeal
- 6 Forelle pears (or other small pears; I used Seckel pears), nearly ripe
- 3 cups (700 mL) water
- 1 cup (240 mL) Riesling wine
- 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
- 3 branches rosemary
- ½ vanilla bean, split
- 10-15 black peppercorns
- ½ cup cold water
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 6 rosemary sprigs
- ¼ to ½ cup caster/superfine sugar
- Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray a 9x4-inch loaf pan with cooking spray and line the sides and bottom of the pan with parchment paper. Spray the parchment with cooking spray. (You can also butter and flour the pan or brush with Cake Magic.)
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat butter until smooth and creamy. Add sugar and salt and beat on high speed for 3-5 minutes, until very light in color, scraping down the bowl as needed. Turn speed down to medium-high and add vanilla and eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl and mixing to combine after each addition. Continue beating for 3-4 minutes, so the mixture is combined, light, and fluffy.
- In a medium bowl whisk together flour and cornmeal. Turn the mixer speed to low and add flour mixture in three parts, scraping down the bowl after each and incorporating thoroughly after each addition. Remove the bowl from the mixer and give the bowl a final scrape and hand-mix to ensure all the butter is incorporated evenly into the batter.
- Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and spread the top level with an offset spatula. Tap the pan on the counter a few times so the batter fills in evenly. Bake for 70-80 minutes, until a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
- Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then carefully turn the cake out onto a wire rack. Peel off the parchment and allow the cake to cool completely.
- Use a vegetable peeler to peel the pears from the stem to the base. Try to make long, even strokes while peeling and leave the stems intact.
- Cut two pieces of parchment paper into circles the diameter of a large saucepot that will fit all the pears. In that saucepot, combine water, wine, sugar, rosemary, vanilla bean, and peppercorns. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low to bring the syrup to a simmer.
- Add the pears to the syrup and place both parchment circles over the surface. Place a lid on top of the pot, slightly ajar.
- Poach pears for 8-10 minutes, until the pears are soft. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the pears to cool in the syrup, still covered.
- In a small saucepan, stir together sugar and water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add rosemary and allow to simmer for 5 minutes without stirring. Remove syrup from the heat.
- Remove rosemary sprigs with a fork, shaking off any excess syrup. Dip in the caster sugar and place sprigs on a wire rack to cool and dry. Save the syrup and let it cool while the rosemary sprigs dry.
- Cut a 1½-inch slice of pound cake using a serrated knife. Cut the slice in half diagonally and stack the halves in a way that looks pretty to you. Place a pear next to the cake slices. Spoon 2-3 teaspoons of the rosemary syrup over the pear. There should be enough that a small amount of syrup gathers around the base of the pear. Garnish with a candied rosemary sprig. Repeat with remaining cake and pears.