Being a Jew (even a bad one) in December in the U.S. can prove trying. I don’t mind the trees, wreaths and boughs (they smell great!), the perpetual Christmas music playing everywhere (well, so long as it’s Bing or Ella), or the plethora of baking magazines stocking the racks at every grocery store in town (bring them on!). What bothers me is the assumption that everybody celebrates Christmas.
During Chanukah this year, the nice Peruvian delivery man from one of our vendors at work wished me a Feliz Navidad. I smiled and wished him a Happy Chanukah back.
‘Chanukah.’ I tried pronouncing it with a Latin American accent. ‘HA-noo-kah.’
‘Oh, you mean año nuevo.’
‘No I don’t mean año nuevo, I mean Chanukah. The Jewish… version of Christmas.’
‘You know, Jewish people? Jews?’
Despite being Jew Crew, I’m down with Christmas just like I’m down with Jesus: he seems like he was a cool guy, and if Christmas tricks people into baking a lot and celebrating trees, then I can get behind it. That lots of yummy foods (and drinkles) are associated with the birth of Jesus doesn’t make me want to eat (or drink) them any less. Any Scroogy tendencies I may have are in no way aimed at the culinary side of Christmas. Cookies, spice cakes, peppermint bark – the more the merrier. Ho, ho hos.
I’m unclear as to whether my recent hankering for gingerbread has anything to do with the impending holiday, or if it’s just the cold making me want to eat everything in sight, bear-like, in preparation for a long winter. Either way, warming spices and pears seem to fit the bill perfectly this time of year.
Inspired by a recipe in Mani Niall’s book Sweet!, I decided to add cranberries to the mix, as I didn’t get enough of them yet this year, and bake this cranberry pear upside-down gingerbread.
After a bit of analysis paralysis spent researching dozens of recipes, I finally threw caution to the wind and made one up. I melted butter, brown sugar and salt together in a 9″ round pan, arranged the cranberries and pears over the top, then whisked up a batter of more melted butter, blackstrap molasses, white sugar, fresh and dried ginger, cinnamon, black pepper (as well as the usual cakey ingredients), and baked it up. I liked the balance of flavors – spicy, sweet, bitter, tart – but the gingerbread part hardly rose at all and had a dense, dry mouthfeel. I swapped out sunflower oil for the butter and upped the leavening for the second trial.
Crossing my fingers, I turned the finished cake out onto a platter. The glowing red cranberries glistened prettily as the toffee-flavored sauce oozed down the sides. I cut a wedge of cake and the pear slices revealed themselves, tucked between the cake and the berries. A dollop of whipped cream tempered the heat of the ginger and mellowed the deep molasses flavor.
Fresh from the oven, the cake is springy and tender; as it sits, it absorbs the juices from the baked fruit, becoming more moist and gooey, similar in texture to a steamed pudding. The tang of the berries plays off the mild pears and the deep, dark, spicy cake. The high ratio of fruit to cake should assuage any guilt you may feel regarding indulgence. Hey, it’s the holidays!
Whatever your celebratory persuasion – Christmas, Chanukah or Ursidae – this cake makes a satisfying dessert after any meal, be it a roast ham, a bowl of Chinese take-out, or an unsuspecting salmon.
Cranberry Pear Upside-Down Gingerbread
Be sure to use ripe pears for this cake. They should smell fragrant and have a hint of give when pressed.
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, in 6 pieces
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 ounces (about 2 cups) whole fresh or frozen cranberries
2 large, ripe, buttery pears (such at Bartletts), peeled, cut off the core, sliced lengthwise 1/4″ or thinner
1/4 cup vegetable oil (such as sunflower)
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) peeled and finely grated fresh ginger (I like to use a microplane)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsulphured, blackstrap or dark molasses
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
lightly sweetened whipped cream or creme fraiche, for serving
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º.
Grease the sides of a 9″ round cake pan with a bit of the butter, then place the rest of the butter pieces in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the brown sugar and the salt evenly over the butter, and place in the oven until melted and bubbly, about 10 minutes. Dump in the cranberries (they should almost completely cover the bottom), then carefully the pears over the cranberries. Set aside while you make the batter.
In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, grated ginger, sugar, molasses and egg to combine. Whisk in the milk. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, powdered ginger, cinnamon and pepper. Whisk the dries into the wets until smooth. The batter will be runny. Pour the batter over the pears.
Bake the cake until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 – 35 minutes, rotating halfway through. Run a thin knife or small, offset spatula around the perimeter of the cake to loosen it. Invert a large plate over the cake. Wearing oven mitts, grasp both the plate and the cake pan and flip them over. Carefully lift the pan off. If some cake has stuck to the pan, you can scrape it off and spackle it back on (or just eat it – it IS the best part, and none will be the wiser).
Serve the cake warm or at room temperature, with a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraîche. The cake is best the day it is made, but you can store it in an airtight container at room temp or in the fridge for a day or two.