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.
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...
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vanilla Pear Cake
Yeild: One 9" or 10" round cake, 8-10 servings.
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
Round cake pan (I used a 10" cake pan)
* * * * *
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. **