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 baked my pretty pears into a cake flavored with the dominant flavors of my favorite Masala chai (which is fun to make from scratch). I made the cake gluten-free by using a blend of sweet rice, oat, millet, and buckwheat flours based on this nectarine rosemary upside-down cake that my friend Molly and I came up with last month.
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.
High on chai:
Pears in there:
One year ago:
Two years ago:
Three years ago:
Four years ago:
(Gluten-Free) Chai-Spiced Pear Skillet Cake
A few notes: Organic cane sugar is slightly chunkier than the conventional, fully-refined stuff, and it gives the top of the cake a slightly crunchy crust that I find addictive. If your pears are very ripe and sweet, you may want to reduce the sugar by 2 tablespoons. You can make your own crème fraîche by stirring together 1 cup heavy cream and 1 tablespoon buttermilk. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 24 hours, stirring once or twice. Be sure to use sweet white rice flour here (such as Mochiko brand) which is made from sticky rice and helps the cake hold together. If you only have regular rice flour, you may want to try adding 1/4-1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum along with the flours. If you or your guests have severe gluten allergies, be sure to use ingredients that are certified gluten-free (particularly the oat flour). I like baking this in my 10″ round cast iron skillet, but I think it would fit in a 9″ springform pan with 2″ high sides, as well.
All ounce measurements here are by weight.
Makes one 9-10″ cake, 8-10 servings
The spiced sugar:
3/4 cup (5 3/4 ounces) organic cane sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 stick (8 tablespoons/4 ounces) unsalted butter, plus 2 teaspoons for greasing the pan, at room temperature
spiced sugar from above (see instructions)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup (4 ounces) sweet white rice flour
1/4 cup (1 1/4 ounces) millet flour
1/4 cup (1 ounce) oat flour
1/4 cup (1 ounce) buckwheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/3 cup (2 1/2 ounces) crème fraîche (or sour cream)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds ripe but firm pears (about 3 medium)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Make the cake:
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 350ºF. Butter a 10″ oven-proof skillet with the 2 teaspoons of softened butter.
In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon. Set aside 2 tablespoons to top the cake; add the rest to the butter. Cream together the butter and spiced sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice, about 3 minutes.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
In a medium bowl, sift together the rice, millet, oat, and buckwheat flours, baking powder, and salt. Add half of this mixture to the butter, stir on low until just combined. Add the crème fraîche and vanilla, stir on low until just combined, then add the remaining flour mixture, stirring on low until just combined.
Remove the bowl from the mixer, and give it a gentle stir with a rubber spatula, scraping the bottom and sides to make sure the batter is homogenous. It will be thick and spongy from the baking powder reacting with the acids in the crème fraîche.
Cut the pears off of their cores. Cut some of the pear pieces into enough 1/2″ cubes to equal 1 cup, and slice the rest into 1/2″ thick (at the widest part) wedges. Drizzle the lemon juice over the wedges; this keeps them from oxidizing, and gives them a little punch. Gently fold the pear chunks into the batter, then spread the batter evenly into the greased skillet.
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.
Bake the cake until the top is golden and set, the sides are pulling away from the pan, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 45-55 minutes. Since the cake is still cooking from residual heat, let it cool for at least an hour before cutting it into wedges and devouring it with your afternoon (or, ahem, breakfast) tea.
Leftovers keep well at room temperature for a day or two; refrigerate the rest after that.