I have to agree with Eddie Izzard: pears are sneaky little buggers that seem to say “No, don’t ripen yet…wait til he goes out of the room…ripen now now now!” Most of the time I want to tell them to F off, too.
But I couldn’t bring myself to use foul language on the beautiful pears left to us by our friends who cat-sat for us last week while we took a road trip to
Portland. Karisa runs
the intern program at Delphi, an estate with acres of educational farmland in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (She also happens to be the nicest person in the world). Delphi must be covered in orchards, based on the abundance of fruit that Karisa always seems to possess. Fall is no exception; Karisa
left us 5 of the most beautiful pears I’ve ever seen. You know those fancy pears that people send to fancy people for the holidays? These pears looked like those.
So rather than telling the pears to shove it as they slowly ripened, I gave them each a little “squeezy squeezy” throughout the day until they had the slightest hint of give. Pears ripen from the inside out, so if you wait for them to give the signals of other (non-sneaky, non-buggery) fruit, you’ll open them up to find them brown and rotty on the inside (and laughing at you).
Yet pears are high-maintenance even for baking. They’re low in acid, with a mild flavor that can taste bland when baked. For this reason, they’re often used in conjunction with other, more assertive flavors – ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom, for instance.
I usually bake smaller batches when I’m testing recipes so as not to waste ingredients on inedible experiments, but I thought I could nail my new recipe on the first try. So I baked up a large, ten-inch round cake in my skillet.
I somehow decided it was a good idea to photograph the mixer stirring the batter…for, like, five minutes. I would never do this with a wheat-based cake batter since I know how glutens react when you work them too much – they turn into bread. I thought that this wouldn’t be a problem with a gluten-free batter, but I was wrong. I did not nail the recipe. Cake #1 baked up into a squat sort of giant hockey puck that was just as tender as something you’d want to hit with a stick into a large net, and was shockingly bland, to boot.
Thankfully, I still had pears left, so I baked them into cake #2. This one had a more delicate texture and big flavor thanks to more spices and salt, as well as a squeeze of lemon juice added to the pears to give them a bit more oomph.
I was adding tapioca flour and xanthan gum to the cakes to make them
sturdier, but I was finding them lacking in the delicate sort of crumb
that every cake should have. So for cake #3, I left them out. This cake had a beautiful melt-in-your mouth texture bursting with chai spices and studded with fat chunks of tender pears. Once I tasted a piece warm from the oven, waiting to eat this cake until after I had photographed it was nothing short of torturous.
I start by making a spiced sugar, some of which gets set aside for sprinkling over the cake batter and pears; the rest gets creamed into softened butter until light and fluffy. The sugary top gives the cake a classic coffeecake-like crust on top that plays off the soft fruit and tender crumb.
Buckwheat flour adds an undertone of its robust flavor, and no one will ever guess that the cake is gluten-free. It has the taste and mouthfeel of a cake made with whole wheat and all-purpose flours. I leave the skin on the pears, which softens up enough to go unnoticed in the finished cake.
I like this cake at room temperature with a spot of crème fraîche and tea, but it can become dessert when served warm with a scoop of dreamy vanilla ice cream. I can guarantee that nobody, not even Eddie Izzard, would ever tell it to fuck off.
Maple-Glazed Bacon Apple Scones
Two years ago:
Roasted Quince and Apple Turnovers and
Quicker Whole Wheat Puff Pastry
Three years ago:
Roasted Summer Vegetable Caponata
Almond Plum Tart, Cardamom Ice Cream
Four years ago:
All ounce measurements here are by weight.
Make the cake:
Fan out the pear slices over the top of the cake with the fatter part facing out. Press them into the batter a little bit; I like to place them at a diagonal so that some cake batter peaks through the fruit. Sprinkle the reserved 2 tablespoons of spiced sugar evenly over the top.
Leftovers keep well at room temperature for a day or two; refrigerate the rest after that.