Friday, November 14, 2008

recipe: Spiced Pear Cake

This recipe is based on a German/Jewish Apple Cake that my mother used to make around the holidays. She died when I was a kid, and her recipe box was lost in my father's & my resulting move to Florida -- we moved to be closer to my father's mother, who could look after me while my father was at work. When I started getting into baking in college,* I tried to reconstruct the recipe based on shoddy memories of being 6 years old and up to my little elbows in thin-sliced, cinnamon-sugar--coated apples. It never quite came out the way I remembered it, and it wasn't until I was 25 that I thought to ask my family about it -- upon which I received a recipe card in the mail in about a week, hand-written in my grandmother's neat script with the kind of blue ballpoint that she'd always come back with a box of after visiting her State Farm agent.

It'd be lovely for Thanksgiving -- the cake comes out super-dense & moist with a sort of buttery toffee flavor, and the spices are classic fall fare. I modded the recipe to use pears instead of apples 'cause I've got a lot of friends who don't like cooked-apple texture. (The pears are nice, but I still recommend apples -- and the fruit is sliced so thin that it ends up more soft-caramely than pulpy/mushy anyway.) It can be served warm or cool or chilled, with ice cream if you want, or a melted chocolate drizzle maybe, or plain and with coffee.

Spiced Pear Cake


4 medium pears
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
pinch of ground cloves
1/4 cup sugar

2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, gently melted (but not hot)
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)

1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt


Peel the pears and slice thin (but not VERY thin... maybe 1/8th of an inch. thick enough so they don't fall apart on you). In a bowl, toss the slices gently with the spices and 1/4 cup of sugar and then set aside.

Beat the sugar and eggs together with an electric mixer until the mixture lightens and expands a bit in volume (maybe 2 minutes?). Add the butter and beat for another minute or so, then stir in the vanilla. (You could do all this with a whisk if you needed a workout.)

Sift together the dry ingredients. Stir the dry mixture into the wet mixture (adding it in 2 or 3 batches works well) until the batter is smooth. Grease an 8x8 baking pan (if it's not nonstick) and pour in the batter. A 9-inch round should also work.**

Now is a good time to preheat your oven to 350.

Take the bowl of now-macerated pear slices and discard some of the pear juice/melted sugar that's collecting in it -- you don't want to add too much moisture to the cake. Then, starting about 1/8th of an inch in from the outer edge of pan, lay the pear slices down on top of the batter one at a time, parallel to the sides of the pan, overlapping each slice just a bit. Go around the pan in a ring, and then start a second ring inside the first, overlapping the rings a bit, too. Keep going until you fill the pan or run out of fruit (hopefully the former). This will be a pain in your ass.

When you're done, pop the pan in the oven for ~60 minutes. (If you ended up using a 9x9 pan 'cause you're a naughty baker like me and don't own all that many pans, try ~40 minutes.) When it's done, the cake should be pulling away from the sides of the pan and poking up between the pear slices, which should be golden-caramel-brown, and a toothpick near the center should come out clean. Allow pan to cool at least 15 minutes before serving, but it's even better the next day. Preferably for breakfast.


If you wanted to, you could chop the pears into smallish chunks instead of slicing them all fancy, and just kinda scatter the macerated chunks over the batter. But the fancy slices really are pretty.

If you're going to use apples, I like Granny Smith 'cause I'm quaint like that but any tart, firm, baking-approved apple would be okay. Just slice the apples VERY thin if you're doing the fancy slicing thing -- ~1/16th of an inch, or as thin as you can get them consistently and still be able to handle them. And add up to 1/4 cup more sugar during the maceration process, and make sure the mixture sits for at least an hour. Apples are stubborn.

The spices you add to the fruit are a flavor adventure (i.e., spice to taste). I think 1.5 tsp of total spice is a good amount to aim for, though.

* Man I wish I didn't know enough potheads that this sounded less than innocent.

** Baking 911 has a good pan-volume chart for use in emergency substitutions.