Pear Cake #9

And so began the search for the pear cake of my dreams.

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Button-JumpToRecipe-LowResA while ago I was looking through a newly purchased cookbook on Italian desserts. To be honest, I bought the book mainly because I was enticed by a photo of a pear cake; golden in colour and topped with a laurel of sliced pears. With greedy anticipation I bought the required four pears, waited for them to ripen, and then diligently followed the recipe. The cake that came out of the oven was beautiful to behold…and then the first bite. What a disappointment! You would have been hard pressed to say where the pears had disappeared to.

And so began the search for the pear cake of my dreams.

I leafed through several cookbooks in my collection but was struck by how similar the pear cake recipes were. Nothing that suggested it would yield the wack of pear flavour I craved. Soooo…time to get creative!

img_0602For years I have read and enjoyed the food writing and recipe development of America’s Test Kitchen. While I haven’t always agreed with what they’ve deemed the definitive version of whatever, I have been drawn to their methodology. Now I am determined to give it a go myself, wondering how many pear cakes it would take me to reach perfection (or cause a family revolt: “Not another pear cake!”).

The first thing I decided was that I had to know more about my main flavour: the pear.

Most grocery stores carry three or four varieties of pear: Anjou, Bosc, Asian, and on a more seasonal basis, Bartlett. Anjou and Bosc pears are both fine for baking and cooking. My pear of choice is the Bosc pear because it holds its shape and texture slightly better than the Anjou and has a somewhat more assertive flavour. Asian pears are closer to apples and are best eaten raw or used in salads. Bartlett pears are excellent for eating but turn to mush when baked or cooked. Most canned pears are Bartlett. For a reason I surmise has something to do with the canning process, canned Bartlett pears can be used (in a pinch) in baking if well drained.

The next thing I had to determine was, how do you know when a pear is ripe? Too often I’ve had pears that don’t appear ripe one day and then, almost in the blink of an eye, are brown and mushy in the centre. Bartlett pears are the only ones that change colour as they ripen, going from green to yellow. Pears ripen from the inside out which is what makes it tricky to determine their readiness. The best test is to press gently on the neck of the pear near the stem. If the pear is ripe, there should be a small amount of “give”. Store pears at room temperature until ripe and then refrigerate to gain a few extra days before they become candidates for the food waste bin.

Armed with my new knowledge of pears, I went out and bought several pounds of Bosc pears, unsalted butter, eggs, sour cream, and buttermilk. After all, who knew what I might need before I was finished?

good1Recalling a coffee cake recipe that had the baker fold lemon curd into the cake batter, I made a thick pear sauce (reminiscent of apple sauce) and folded it into the cake batter of the original recipe. I increased the amount of flour by a few tablespoons to compensate for the extra moisture and then stirred in the chopped pear. When the cake came out of the oven, it looked promising. When cut, the texture was fine, the over-all appearance enticing. But the pear taste? Still wasn’t there. What next?

I decided to scrap the pear sauce as it hadn’t contributed anything but extra work – and who needs that? Then I had a brainwave. Inspired by my cranberry coffee cake that has a layer of fruit in the middle, I set to making a third version of the pear cake. I put half of my batter into the pan and covered it with all the chopped pears. I then blanketed the pears with the rest of the batter, and finished off with a fanfare of sliced pears on top. For the first time I was able to taste the pears as a distinct entity but, somehow the cake was lacking “umph”. Back to the drawing board.

I won’t bore you with the next several attempts – which included the introduction (and dumping) of streusel, cocoa, and chocolate — but jump to pear cake #8 which was almost there – finally!

In researching other pear cakes I had come across an upside down one that called for rock-hard (unripened) pears which were poached in a red wine reduction below the batter as the cake baked. I tried it and while the treatment of the pears worked really well, the cake part was, to my taste, awful. But it got me thinking. Why not replace the wine with a reduction of pear nectar? I really liked the idea of using rock-hard pears because *sigh* what else does the grocery store ever have? For the cake part I went to a recipe for an upside down vanilla pear cake by Great British Bake Off contestant James Morton that I had made before. I adapted his batter recipe by adding ground ginger and almond extract to up the flavours. I also substituted vanilla bean paste for the seeds called for in the recipe and combined his batter with the rock-hard pear treatment.

4by6.img_0607One last change – another “hit” of pear was needed to carry the taste from the top to the bottom of the cake. I’d learned that to be tasted, the pears inside a cake were best layered together rather than folded in. But I couldn’t use rock-hard pears in the middle of the cake and I wasn’t prepared to fuss around with coordinating pears of two degrees of ripeness nor was I prepared to go to the trouble of poaching the pears separately. After all, you reach a point where the whole baking project becomes too much effort. My solution? Canned pears because they are tender but maintain their shape in baking when well drained.

So – Pear Cake #9 – pears that you can taste throughout and a cake with just a hint of almond. The pear cake of my dreams. If you want to make it really extravagant, serve the cake with whipped cream, vanilla or coffee (preferably Hagen Daas) ice cream, and a sauce – chocolate or caramel.

This cake is to die for, no matter how you serve it.

Pear Cake #9


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  • Serves: 10-12
  • Hands-on Time: 60 minutes
  • Baking and Cooling: 2-3 hours

Ingredients:

Bottom Pear Layer (which will become the top):

  • 4 Bosc pears (rock-hard)
  • 1 cup pear nectar
  • 3 tbsp. dark brown sugar

Cake Batter:

  • One 796ml (28oz) can Bartlett pear halves in pear juice
  • 250 grams (approx. 1 cup + 2 tbsp.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 250 grams (approx. 1 ¼ cup+ 1 tsp.) granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 75 grams (approx. ¼ cup) Greek-style yogurt
  • ½ tsp. vanilla bean paste or ¾ tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. pure almond extract
  • 260 grams (approx. 1 ¾ cups + 2 tbsp.) self-rising flour*
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger

Steps:

  1. Prepare the pan by lining a deep, 9’’ cake pan with aluminum foil, being careful not to tear the foil. Spray the foil-lined pan with cooking spray. Sprinkle the 3 tbsp. of dark brown sugar evenly over the bottom of the pan. Set aside. Take 4 Bartlett pear halves out of their tin and cover with paper towelling to absorb moisture while you continue with other parts of the cake. Just before you start to make the batter, gently press each pear half with paper towel to remove more moisture – you won’t get it all but you will get enough to dampen the paper. Chop the pears into ½’’ cubes and set aside in a bowl lined with paper towel.

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    9″ Pan, lined with foil, sprayed, sugar sprinkled
  2. Pour the pear nectar into a small saucepan and, over medium heat, reduce to ¼ cup (takes about 15 minutes). Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. Making the bottom (it will become the top when you flip it): Peel the Bosc pears, cut in half lengthwise. Then remove the core with a spoon or melon baller. Cut the pear halves into ¼’’ slices starting at the bottom and working up towards the top, stopping short of the top so that the slices remain connected at the top of the neck. Fan out the sliced halves and place in the pan, necks towards the centre of the pan and insides facing up. The outsides of the pear are down, resting on the bottom of the pan. Pour the reduced nectar evenly over the pears. Set aside. Set the oven to preheat to 325F.

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  4. To make the cake batter: Combine the butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl and beat together until light and smooth. This will take about 5 minutes with an electric hand mixer or 3 minutes with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle.

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    Completed mixture for step 4
  5. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the yogurt, vanilla bean paste, and almond extract and beat well to combine. The batter may look curdled – that’s okay.
  6. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and ginger. With a spatula, gently fold the flour mixture into the butter/sugar/egg mixture just to combine. It will be quite a thick batter. If you find it too thick, stir in a little more yogurt so that it’s of a dropping consistency.

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    Completed mixture for step 6
  7. Using half the batter, drop in mounds on top of the pears in the pan and carefully spread the batter to cover the pears completely. Scatter the chopped pears evenly over the batter. Cover the chopped pear layer with the remaining batter by dropping it in mounds over the pears and then spreading carefully to cover.

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    Middle pear layer, before covering with batter
  8. Bake cake in the centre of the oven until a tester near the centre of the cake comes out clean (about 1 hour and 25 minutes). At about the 1 hour, 15 minute mark you may want to place a piece of aluminium foil over the top of the cake if it is browning too quickly.
  9. Once the cake is out of the oven, leave it to cool in the pan for 15 to 20 minutes. When cooled, flip the cake pan and turn the cake out onto a plate and carefully remove the foil. Let the cake cool completely. Enjoy!

*You can buy self-rising flour or you can make your own by adding 1 ½ tsp. baking powder and ½ tsp. fine salt for each cup of all-purpose flour.

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How I Came By My Obsession

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I come by my recipe obsession honestly. I don’t know about generations far past, but both my grandmothers were recipe collectors. Each had a small top drawer in the kitchen where they kept recipes neatly clipped, glued or taped into a newsprint notebook or captured in a large, plain brown envelope.

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Nain – an excellent cook.

My Nain was an excellent cook. Nain is the Welsh word for grandmother and what we called my mother’s mother as she came to Canada from Wales and to differentiate her from my father’s mother, Granny Rankin. In my mind, another significant difference between the two was their ability to cook; where Nain succeeded, Granny…tried. Nain even managed standing rib roasts so that at one end these roasts would be fairly well done – as my grandfather preferred – while the other end was rare, as the rest of the family loved. I’m not quite sure why Granny collected recipes – she was a terrible cook. She was so bad that she had a door installed by her stove on the end wall of the kitchen so that she could throw things that had caught fire out into the yard. You never knew when the door would jerk open and a flaming saucepan would come flying out. As children, my sister and I learned to give this door a wide berth. What can I say? One grandmother entertained with glorious food she had prepared herself; the other called Simpson’s Arcadian Court to cater. While my grandmothers neatly cut out their recipes, my own mother, more pressed for time, ripped whole pages out of magazines and newspapers which she eventually organized into file folders.

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Granny Rankin…tried.

My grandmothers didn’t have a collection of cookbooks. Nain owned one cookbook, given as a Christmas present the year it first came out, The Joy of Cooking. I now have this volume in my collection, complete with its instructions on How to Skin a Weasel. My mother had a small collection of about ten to fifteen cookbooks.

Then there’s me. I did none of these things. Cookbooks, cooking magazines and collected recipes by the box full over-run my house: tucked behind chairs and doors, filling bookcases, stacked by beds, corralled into binders and copied into notebooks. Now, where did I see THAT recipe?

In an effort not to lose track of recipes that work for me (at least as a starting point), my current approach is to record them in a small loose leaf recipe binder and annotate them as I work on them. At other times I’ve had to phone people I know I gave a recipe to in the hopes they can lay their hands on it, which, thankfully, they usually can.

topdownSome of my grandmother’s recipes that I really can’t do without are written on the end pages of one of the first cookbooks that I purchased for myself, The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, when I moved into my first apartment. Of those, the one that I return to most often is Nain’s Lemon Pudding. It is light, fresh, and deliciously lemon. I like to serve it warm with a scoop of frozen vanilla yogurt.

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Nain’s Lemon Pudding

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  • Serves: 6
  • Hands-on Time: 20 minutes
  • Baking and Cooling: 1 hour 45 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • ¼ c butter or margarine, softened
  • 1 ½ c granulated sugar
  • ¼ c all-purpose flour
  • 2c milk
  • Grated zest of one lemon
  • ½ c lemon juice

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease a deep, 1 ½ quart casserole or soufflé dish. Set aside.
  2. Separate the eggs, placing the whites in a large metal or glass bowl and the yolks in a small bowl. Set aside.
  3. Beat the butter and sugar together until well blended and fluffy – about 3 minutes.4by6.dscf6847
  4. Beat the 4 egg yolks into the butter/sugar mixture.
  5. Blend in the flour and the milk.
  6. Stir in the lemon zest and juice.
  7. With clean beaters or a metal whisk, beat egg whites until they form soft peaks. Carefully fold the whites into the lemon mixture. 

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  8. Gently pour the pudding into the prepared baking dish.
  9. Place a water tight pan on the middle rack of the oven. The pan should be big enough to hold the baking dish with the pudding. Place the baking dish in the pan and then pour one inch (2 ½ cm) of boiling water into the pan, being careful not to get any into the pudding. 

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  10. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the top is golden brown and a thin knife inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let sit for at least 30 minutes before serving. The pudding can also be easily reheated by placing it in a low oven while dinner is being eaten if it has cooled completely and you want to serve it warm. If I’ve had the oven on for the main course, I just place the pudding in the turned off oven while we eat. No need for the water bath at this point. 

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Family Holiday Recipes

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In many homes the holiday season calls forth treasured family recipes that are an important part of celebratory traditions. With Christmas approaching, I’m looking to these recipes for some relaxed baking fun. Part of what makes them relaxing and fun is that they are perfect as they are. One of the must-do recipes in our house is for shortbread. When I was living in residence at university, I decided to serve these at a seasonal open house in my room. A perfect choice as they required few ingredients and could be made by hand if necessary (which was the case in the minimally equipped floor kitchen). I procured what I needed and set the pound of butter in a saucer and placed it on the radiator to soften while I went to work in the library. When I returned, I found that not only had the butter softened, it had mostly melted and overflowed the saucer, running down into the unreachable inner workings of the radiator.  So, into a refrigerator with the butter to firm it up a bit and then on to making the cookies. The shortbread was a huge success and, with the visible evidence of my mishap wiped up, I forgot all about it. A few days later though, my room began to acquire a rancid, sheep-like smell. Throughout the rest of the winter, I had to leave the heat in my room off and the window cracked no matter how cold it got outside. Made for a long winter.

Just in time for the season, here are some of my family’s holiday favourites. Enjoy!

Scotch Shortbread

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Of all the recipes tried over the years, this is still the family’s shortbread of choice. While you can use any butter and the shortbread will be great, I recommend purchasing a quality brand (as opposed to a store brand) as they usually have a higher fat content and slightly better flavour. I also like to keep decorations to a minimum so nothing detracts from the luxurious shortbread – usually a small snippet of candied fruit or a single silver or gold dragée. I avoid the balls that come in the round combination of sprinkles containers in the grocery store as they do not always retain their shape and melt into the cookies. I also roll the dough out between two pieces of waxed paper to avoid any sticking issues. The shortbread will keep in an airtight tin for at least a week (if they last that long – yum!) and can also be well wrapped and frozen for up to a month.

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  • Makes: Approx. 30 (Depending on size)
  • Hands on Time: 30 min
  • Baking Time: 20 min

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup salted or unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ cup icing sugar, sifted if lumpy
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. Cream the butter until light and fluffy (shouldn’t take more than a minute as you are not trying to whip air into the dough). Beat in the icing sugar just until combined.
  3. Gradually beat in the flour and mix until combined (about a minute, or so). Knead the dough briefly by hand to bring it all together. If your butter was very soft, you may want to wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for about 30 minutes to firm up a bit. Otherwise, you can proceed with the cookies once you have kneaded the dough and it is smooth and easy to handle.
  4. Pat the dough into a disk and lightly sprinkle the top and bottom with flour. Place a piece of waxed paper on the work surface and dust lightly with flour; place the dough in the middle and cover with a second piece of waxed paper.
  5. Roll out the dough to a scant ½ inch thickness and cut out your cookies. I usually use cutters between 1 ½ inches to 3 inches. The shortbread are really rich and you don’t want them too big. You also want to cut as many cookies as possible from this first rolling of the dough as cookies from subsequent rollings are not quite as tender (but still perfectly acceptable).
  6. Use a metal spatula to transfer the cookies to the prepared sheet and bake until the bottom edges are starting to turn a delicate golden brown colour (you can lift one up with a fork for a quick peek – see below), about 20 minutes. I usually do a first check for browning after 15 minutes just to be safe.
  7. When done, remove from the oven and cool on a baking sheet for 10 to 15 minutes, then place on a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

Variation:

  • Divide the dough in half, and add two tablespoons of coloured sprinkles. Pat
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    Variation Cookies

    the dough into a square about ½ inch deep and smooth across the top. Chill for at least 30 minutes. Cut the dough into ½ inch cubes. Bake the cubes as in step 6 above.

  • Divide the dough in half and add 2 tbsp of finely grated orange zest. Also add 3 tbsp of finely chopped crystallized ginger.

Coconut Toffee Squares

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These squares are sweet and totally yummy. They keep well for several days at room temperature in a sealed plastic container. I like to cut them into small squares of roughly 1 inch or so.

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  • Makes: 32 small squares or 20 larger bars
  • Hands on Time: 15 min
  • Baking Time: 40 min total

Ingredients:

  • Base:
    • ½ c butter, softened
    • ½ c brown sugar
    • 1 c all-purpose flour
  • Topping:
    • 2 large eggs
    • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
    • 1 c brown sugar
    • 1 tsp baking powder
    • ½ tsp salt
    • 1 c shredded sweetened coconut
    • 1 tsp vanilla extract
    • ½ tsp almond extract

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line an 8 inch square pan with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. For the base: Cream the ½ cup of butter briefly with the brown sugar and then beat in the 1 cup of flour until combined. You will have a crumbly mixture. Press firmly and evenly into the prepared pan and bake for 10 minutes in a 350F oven.
  3. While the base is baking, prepare the topping. In a bowl, combine all the topping ingredients and beat them together.
  4. After the base has baked for 10 minutes, remove it from the oven and spread the topping mixture over the base. Return to the oven and bake for a further 25 to 30 minutes until the top is golden brown and the filling below is set. Remove from the oven and cool in the pan on a wire rack. When the squares are still somewhat warm, lift the uncut baking out of the pan by the parchment and cut it into squares. Cool completely.

My Christmas Variation: Add 2 tbsp of finely grated orange zest and a ¾ cup of dried cranberries to the topping mixture, stirring them in after the other topping ingredients have been combined.

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Swedish Spritz

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These cookies have always been a favourite of mine. My mom made these every Christmas. For these cookies, you will need a cookie press. These take a bit of practice. It’s worth mentioning that I learned some choice vocabulary watching my mom trying to operate her cookie press. But the cookies were always good! If you don’t want to use a cookie press, it is also possible to chill the dough and then roll it and cut it with cookie cutters.

Once I have the cookies pressed out onto the cookie sheet, I chill them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This helps the cookies to keep their unique shape while baking. Without the chilling, the cookies tend to spread and loose definition. You can decorate these cookies before or after baking. I usually add a sprinkling of coloured sugar before I bake them.  I make my own coloured sugar by adding a little food colouring (either liquid or paste) to some granulated sugar that I’ve placed in a baggie and then I give the whole works a good shake.

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  • Makes: Approx. 40 cookies.
  • Hands on Time: 45 min
  • Chilling and Baking Time: 40+ min

Ingredients:IMG_0375

  • 1 ½ cups salted butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg, well beaten
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 3 ½ to 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder

Steps:

  1. Line two cookie sheets with parchment and set aside.
  2. Cream the butter briefly, then beat in the sugar thoroughly. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until well combined.
  3. Combine the flour and baking powder (and any spices you might be adding – see variations). Gradually beat the flour mixture into the butter/sugar/egg mixture and mix until you have a smooth dough. Do not over mix.
  4. If using a cookie press, force the dough through a cookie press now. If not using a cookie press, shape it into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for about 30 minutes before rolling out and cutting. If you are having trouble getting the dough to come away from the press and separate cleanly when forming the cookies, you probably need to add a little more flour to the dough. In this case, gather the dough back together and knead in by hand another ¼ to ½ cup of flour. Cookies should be about 1½ inches apart on the cookie sheet. Add decorations as desired and chill the cookies on the sheet for at least 30 minutes.
  5. Preheat oven to 400F. Bake the chilled cookies until set but not brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Keep an eye on these – they burn easily.

Variations:

  • You can also play with this recipe by adding spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger, or a combination along with the flour. A teaspoon or so should be enough, but you can also add to taste.
  • You can also wrap the dough around the small Lindt Lindor chocolate balls for a cookie with a surprise. Bake as above.

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