Vanilla Pear Cake

Last week we had the pleasure of having our dear friends N + D over for dinner.  They're the kind of lovely, low-maintenance friends where you know you could put a bowl of boxed mac 'n cheese in front of them and they wouldn't think twice about it. The conversation would still be warm and lively and interesting. The food, although important, is only part of the equation. So for them I like to do it up a little - bring a little fanciness to the table.

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I decided to make my Mom's infamous Pumpkin Stew - a hearty, delicious, beef and vegetable stew slow-cooked in a pumpkin. (The recipe can be found here. I shared it as a part of the Butter + Love feature in Dark Rye last fall.) However, for our little soireé, I decided to use small sugar pumpkins, so everyone could have their own "bowl."  I told you - fancy. The presentation alone causes quite a reaction from your guests, and then as they're hungrily scraping away the freshly roasted pumpkin with each spoonful of stew - well, it proves quite satisfying to the cook.

Honestly, the most time-intensive thing about it is hollowing out the pumpkin(s). Other than that, the stew is simple; just a few humble ingredients slow cooked to bring out their natural, robust flavors. Autumnal comfort food at it's most rustic and delicious.  I'm getting side-tracked, though. Cake. I must move on to the cake...

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In keeping with the Autumnal theme, I wanted to bake something simple and subtle for dessert; something light to contrast with the robustness of the beef stew. Pears, especially perfectly ripe ones, have such a delicate sweetness to them. It's almost as if you don't pay close enough attention, you'll miss just how truly delicious they are. And pears atop a lightly sweet, airy cake? Well, who wouldn't love to end a meal that way?

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I created this recipe a few years ago, when I was an interim pastry chef at a local gourmet grocer. I was just starting Butter + Love and needed kitchen space - and they needed baked goods. So in addition to baking my array of cookies, I made cakes, muffins, biscuits, and the like. This recipe was originally created for muffins (much easier for the grab and go customers on their morning commute!) but it translates beautifully into a cake - and a pretty darn good lookin' cake at that.

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There's something about the combination of vanilla, nutmeg, and pear that I find magical. It's warm and cozy without being heavy. This cake, in particular, tastes light because two of the key components are unsweetened apple sauce and whipped, fluffy egg whites. Whipping the egg whites may seem like one step too many, but I am a true believer in that extra step. It makes a world of difference. 

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After a generous sprinkling of sugar crystals over the thinly sliced pears the cake is baked until it's almost amber in color, and your kitchen smells like Heaven. If you can resist the urge to slice into it right away (Good luck) let it cool slightly on a wire rack. You can cover it with a tea towel to keep curious and hungry passersby at bay, but make sure to let it cool fully before covering it with plastic wrap or foil. I like to keep as much of the light crust on the top of the cake as possible. It's a nice texture.

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The only other thing I'll say about this cake: Make sure your baking powder is fresh. You're supposed to change out your baking powder every six months, but raise your hand if you've ever forgotten or didn't want to bother to do that? (Let the record show that the author raises her hand.) My mother never did that as a child and clearly my love of baking and baked goods in general was never harmed, nor did any of us complain about the teaspoon of 7 month old baking powder in our chocolate chip cookies. So although I do try to replace my baking powder every 4-6 months (and as a avid baker, I actually do go through a whole can in that time), I've also had fine results if it's a month or two or three beyond the suggested limit... with the exception of this cake. This cake requires fresh baking powder - it's the difference between a dense cake and a light + airy + crumbly one. She's a bit sensitive and requires only the freshest of ingredients and ripest of fruit. But that's also why she's so good.

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Vanilla Pear Cake

Yeild: One 9" or 10" round cake, 8-10 servings.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 


1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 


1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 


Pinch of salt 


2 large eggs 
, divided

1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract 


1 tablespoon lemon (or orange) zest 


1 cup + 2 tbsp (packed) light brown sugar 


4 tablespoons coconut oil (or unsalted butter, if you prefer)

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 cup unsweetened applesauce


2 large ripe pears, thinly sliced 


Sugar crystals, for sprinkling

Cooking spray

Parchment paper 

Round cake pan (I used a 10" cake pan) 

* * * * *

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400°.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.

Separate the eggs, placing the egg whites in a bowl in the fridge. In my experience egg whites whip up faster and easier when they're chilled. 

In another bowl, mix together the egg yolks, vanilla, zest, brown sugar, coconut oil, vegetable oil, and applesauce until well combined. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry until just combined; do not over mix. Add a tiny pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat until fluffy and soft peaks form. Fold into batter; do not over mix.

Line the bottom of a 10" circular cake pan with parchment paper and lightly spray with cooking spray. Pour the batter into the cake pan. Place the pear slices directly into the top of the cake batter. (I like to alternate slices to create a "wave effect.") Generously sprinkle sugar crystals onto the cake.

Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the pears and cake are lightly browned and the cake bounces back to the touch. Serve hot or at room temperature.

* This recipe can be altered to make 12 muffins, if you would like individual servings. Use muffin cups and lightly spray with cooking spray before filling with batter. *

** Also, if you hate cooking spray, then don't use it. Just know that you will need to peel the parchment away from the cake. **

Caramelized Fig Tart

Buttery, flaky pâte brisée. Velvety smooth and decadent cream cheese + whipped cream filling. Three kinds of figs, tossed in brown sugar and caramelized to bubbly, syrupy perfection. A handful of crushed pistachios and a drizzle of honey to finish her off. Isn't she pretty?  

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Caramelized Fig Tart

whipped cream cheese filling + pistachios + honey

Tools:

pastry cutter

rolling pin

tart pan (Pictured Above: 4 1/2 x 14 inch rectangular tart tin. Pictured Below: 5" round.)

roasting pan or skillet

Pâte brisée:

1 1/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup butter, cut into small cubes and chilled

2-4 tablespoons ice water

Filling:

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

2/3 cup powdered sugar, divided

6 oz. cream cheese

1 teaspoon vanilla

dash of salt

Figs + things

12 figs, washed and patted dry (I used Tiger figs, Black Mission Figs, and Calimyrna figs.)

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup light brown sugar

Handful of pistachios, crushed

Honey - I used a tablespoon or so, but feel free to drizzle to your heart's content.

** Please Note: You can absolutely use your favorite pie/pastry crust recipe. I am a firm believer in "To Thine Own Pie Crust Be True." No need to try and make mine if you have a recipe or method you love. **

Directions:

Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the chilled butter, and using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse meal (or "pea-sized" clumps). Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of ice water over the flour/butter mixture and continue to cut the dough until it just starts to hold together. (I use the "Pinch Test" - I pinch some of the dough together between my fingers and if it holds it's shape, you're good to go.) Using your hands, continue to work the dough together until it all holds together. Be careful not to overwork the dough.

Turn the dough out onto  a sheet of plastic wrap. Flatten a bit. Wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Once the dough has had a chance to rest in the fridge, take it out and let it warm up, just until it is soft and pliable. Roll out the dough between two pieces of plastic wrap (or wax paper) to about 1/8-inch thickness. Remove the top piece of plastic wrap, and carefully invert the dough over the tart tin. Remove the other piece of plastic wrap. Press dough into the tin, then roll your rolling pin over the top of the tin, neatly trimming off the excess dough and making it flush with the edges of the tin. Place the tart shell in the refrigerator to chill for 20-30 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 425º.

Meanwhile, make the filling. In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese until soft and smooth. Gradually add 1/3 cup of powdered sugar, vanilla, and dash of salt. Beat until creamy. In another bowl, beat the heavy whipping cream on high until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 1/3 cup of powdered sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture and fold to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the fridge to chill.

Remove the tart tin from the fridge. Either prick the bottom of the shell with a fork or line with parchment and fill with pie weights. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 15-18 minutes, or until the sides begin to brown. (If using pie weights, remove the tin from the oven and gently remove the pie weights. Return the tin to the oven.) Reduce the oven to 375º and continue to bake the crust until it's golden brown - approximately 5 more minutes. Let the tart shell cool completely.

Turn your broiler on high.

Give the figs a quick rinse under cold water and pat dry with a paper towel. Trim off the stems and cut the figs into quarters. Combine the sugar and brown sugar in a small bowl, until thoroughly incorporated. Toss the quartered figs in the sugar and place them skin side down in a single layer in a skillet or roasting pan. Lightly drizzle with a bit of honey. Place the figs under the broiler (approximately 6 inches away from the flame) for 3-4 minutes, or until the sugar has dissolved and begins to bubble up and brown. Remove from the broiler and let cool.

** Note: Most recipes I read only use a broiler for 30-60 seconds. I suppose my broiler is rather slow, though, because I almost always have to leave something under the flame for 3-4 minutes. So please, keep your eye on the figs - you want them to bubble up and caramelize, however long that takes. **

Once the tart shell is cool, remove the whipped cream cheese from the fridge and use to fill the tart shell. Decorate the top of the cream with the caramelized figs - don't worry if the sugary syrup from the bottom of the pan comes with them! It will taste great.

Garnish with chopped pistachios and a drizzle of honey. Chill the tart until ready to serve!

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Tart shell and whipped cream cheese filling can be made the day ahead and kept in the fridge. The figs and assembly are best done the day of.

 

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Date and Pistachio Olive Oil Cookies

As a wedding gift we were given an amazing cookbook, The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage (Phaidon). My husband is of Lebanese descent and although my Mother-in-law sets the bar very, very high for delicious, authentic Lebanese food, I am eager to try my hand at it. I confess I'm intimidated by the venture, though, so the only thing I've made so far is hummus. (I know, I know - one of the easiest things to make. Ever.) However, I have spent quite a bit of time perusing the book - soaking up the ingredient lists, the gorgeous photography by Toby Glanville, and new-to-me methods of preparation.

 This morning I woke up rather early, so I brewed some coffee and sat down with the book, slowly waking up and stretching the muscles of my brain while looking for inspiration among the pages. My comfort zone with cookbooks is in the bread/pastry chapters, so it's no surprise that after 30 minutes of reading about dates, pistachios, rosewater, orange zest, and honey I was itching to get up out of my chair to see what, if any, of those ingredients I had on hand.

As luck would have it, I had a handfull of dates and some pistachios and without having any idea where I was heading with it, I started chopping them up. 

Dates + Pistachios

Dates + Pistachios

After a good, rough chop, I put the chopped fruit + nuts in my mini-food processor, then added a tablespoon of light brown sugar, some orange zest, and a teaspoon of bourbon and wound up with the most delicious and aromatic mixture! Sweet, nutty, a hint of citrus. Mmmm. So... what was next?

During my morning reading I had come across a recipe for something called ma'moul - a beautiful, decorative mounded Lebanese cookie filled with a mixture of dates or nuts. Not having a ma'moul mold nor the patience to roll out/cut dough, I decided to make a version of a thumbprint cookie using the pistachio + date filling in place of jam. 

Filling the thumbprint cookies

Filling the thumbprint cookies

I find dates have a particular sweetness to them, so I usually pair them with something less sweet - even on the savory side. And any of you who have had my cookies know that I don't make overly      sweet things. I can't stand it when lovely and inventive flavor combinations get drowned out by heaps of sugar - it ruins a Good Thing and gives me a tooth ache. That, in turn, makes me grumpy and no one should ever be grumpy as a result of eating a cookie. No one.

So I had the idea to make these thumbprint cookies with an olive oil cookie dough. Well, truth be told, I made the first round with a version of my shortbread recipe, but about half-way in to baking them I decided I also wanted to try an olive oil version. Both were good!

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The shortbread cookie base makes a dense, melt-in-your-mouth sort of cookie, while the olive oil version produces a lighter, more cakey version with a bit of a crunch - reminiscent of Haamantaschen. If pressed, I think I prefer the olive oil version (recipe below), but that could just be the mood I'm in today.  Historically, I do have quite an affinity for shortbread, and my husband and his co-workers preferred it as well. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

Over both I brushed a very simple orange juice + sugar glaze. It not only gives the cookie a slight sheen, but helps to incorporate the cookie base with the fruit + nut paste by enhancing the citrus flavor. The glaze soaks into the cookies, so no need to worry about them being sticky as a result.

Well, aren't they pretty?

Well, aren't they pretty?

 Date + Pistachio Olive Oil Cookies

by Alison Walla

 For the fruit + nut filling:

125g dried, pitted dates, chopped (about 14 dates)

50g shelled pistachio nuts (about 1/3 cup) 

1-2 tsp freshly grated orange zest

1 tbsp light brown sugar

1 tsp bourbon (optional) ** You could use water, if you prefer

For the olive oil cookie dough: 

2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

For the orange glaze: 

1-2 tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice

1 tbsp sugar

 

To make: 

Preheat the oven to 350°. 

Zest the orange and set aside. Then juice the orange and set aside.

Roughly chop the dates + pistachios and place in the bowl of a food processor (I used my mini-food prep). Add the light brown sugar and orange zest. Pulse until fully incorporated and a thick paste forms. Add the bourbon (or water) and process until the mixture smooths out a bit. Set aside. 

Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.

In another bowl, add the sugar to the olive oil and beat until light, 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs and continue to beat until creamy and fluffy, a few more minutes. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the bowl until well combined and smooth. You should have a thick + shiny cookie dough consistency.  Place the bowl with the dough into the fridge for about 10 minutes, or as long as it takes you to put away ingredients and clean up your work space. 

Using two teaspoons or a small cookie scoop, drop mounds of the cookie dough onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, an inch or two apart. Dab a little bit of olive oil onto the back of one of the spoons, and gently make a little well in the center of the cookie. Fill the well with a bit of the date + pistachio mixture (roughly 1/4 tsp each). Sprinkle with coarse sugar and bake for 15-18 minutes, until the tops and sides of the cookies are lightly golden and the bottoms easily lift up off the parchment. Transfer to a cooking rack and let cool for a few minutes. 

In a small bowl, combine the orange juice and tbsp of sugar, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Once the cookies have cooled slightly, brush the top and sides of each cookie with the juice/sugar mixture. Serve warm or let cool completely and store in an air-tight container for up to a week.

 

Team B+L: Carolyn, our resident "Lupine Lady"


Today, we've got a lovely guest post from one of our team members, Carolyn Walsh. Carolyn was the first person to be brought on board to help me out in kitchen. Michael had been my trusty assistant from the very beginning stages of the company, but for the sake of our relationship I fired him. (Smile) I think it turned out to be a good decision, though, as we were married last month. Thank Goodness for Carolyn - baker, candy maker, and relationship equalizer.

When I first asked her to write a post for the blog, she balked at the idea - "What on EARTH am I going to write about!?" - but I encouraged her that this was a low-pressure gig; just a fun way for people to get to know the folks that are a part of our Team. I told her to write about whatever she wanted; about what inspired her, her favorite cookie, her family, what she's learned since joining B+L, her love of books - whatever! It was the mention of her love of books that got to her, because her countenance lightened and I could practically see the wheels spinning in her head! I'd managed to pique her interest.

A few weeks later, she emailed me with her post, and I must say - I was immediately drawn in to her story. I was also impressed. Not only can she perfectly bake a zillion trays of cookies, but she can write, too! So, without further adieu, I encourage you to carve out a few minutes in your afternoon, brew a fresh cup of coffee, and get to know Carolyn and the Lupine Lady...

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My mother read to me quite a lot when I was a little girl.  We started (as I imagine is normal) with picture books , but quickly moved on to bigger and better things (I used to believe this was due to my astonishing intellect; upon later reflection I've decided it was more probably a result of Mom's low tolerance for picture books).  Many of the nicest things about myself--including my close relationship with my mother and my excellent vocabulary--I credit to the time we spent reading grown-up books that went completely over my head, but there was one picture book that never dropped completely off our map.



Miss Rumphius (story and pictures by Barbara Cooney) just might be the greatest book ever written.  It is the story of the elderly Lupine Lady, once a little girl named Alice who dreams of traveling to faraway places and growing old beside the sea.  Her grandfather, an artist, encourages these dreams, but tells her that there is a third thing she must do--something to make the world a more beautiful place.  Alice agrees, though she does not know what that might be.  



I'm tempted to quote the entire book to you line by line, but I wouldn't want to give away and lovely surprises.  Suffice to say that the illustrations are gorgeous, the text is poetic without being precious and in the end, Alice grows up and meets the challenge set by her grandfather.



Although I--like little Alice--am a little overwhelmed by the challenge of "doing something to make the world a more beautiful place," I try not to forget that little beauties can be just as important as big ones.  My neighbor may be gardening for his own personal pleasure, but his two-foot-square oasis of a garden brightens our entire block (and unlike the gigantic amazing Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, is free to all passersby!).

So while keeping in mind that I would someday like to have a Lupine-Lady-level impact on the world, I am working on little things for now.  I like to think that when I pick up a piece of trash on the sidewalk I'm at least doing my part to hold ugliness at bay; as I approach the globally-insignificant task of painting my apartment, I think about how life in a more comforting environment will allow me better access to my creativity--maybe once I've freed my mind from how dingy the walls are, I'll be able to focus on something else.  Something like baking the perfect pumpkin oatmeal cookies or, you know, solving world hunger.  One thing at a time.