Sunday, January 24, 2016

Winter White: Vanilla-Pear Cake

I have only just recently been introduced to Dorie Greenspan's amazing book, "Around My French Table," and it's a such a treasure I can't believe I've managed this long without it. The writing is as enjoyable as the food, and she provides a story for every recipe, incorporating her experiences in France along with helpful tips and variations the reader might like to try. She also confirms what many of us already know intuitively—that good home cooks in France, like good home cooks around the world, use what's available and in season, combined with things they already have on hand, to create simple yet elegant dishes suitable for any occasion.

One such recipe is an apple cake a friend of hers makes, which Ms. Greenspan had to reverse-engineer since the friend does not use a recipe to make it. As a recovering not-writing-recipes-downer myself, I had to try it! But as wonderful as apples are, I associate them with Fall, and wanted something more wintry to match the season. The perfect solution was pears, their sweet perfume mixed with the heady aroma of vanilla, and a bit of cardamom and tangerine zest for balance. A little more tinkering with the mixing method, and I had a delicate, moist confection that will make any Winter day feel just that much warmer:

Vanilla-Pear Cake Slice

Vanilla-Pear Cake

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon tangerine zest
1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup vanilla sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
3 Tablespoons white rum
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 medium pears, ripe but still firm

Butter an 8x8-inch square (or similar capacity) baking pan and set aside.

In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, cardamom and tangerine zest until combined. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy; stir in eggs, rum and vanilla—the batter may look slightly curdled, but that's fine. Add the flour mixture all at once and stir until smooth.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Peel pears, cut off tops and bottoms, quarter, core, and cut into 1/2-inch chunks, adding them to the batter as you go. When done, carefully fold the pieces in, then pour and scrape the batter into your prepared pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean and the edges are a deep, crunchy golden-brown. Let cool; serve warm or at room temperate. If you have any leftover, let the cake cool completely, cover and refrigerate. Remove and let stand until the cake reaches room temperature again before serving—the flavors will be much more developed. This is a rich, sweet dessert, and a little unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraîche served alongside would be excellent.

Notes: A friend gave me a jar of vanilla sugar a few years ago, and I've been milking that vanilla bean for all it's worth ever since. I refill the jar with plain sugar while there is some vanilla sugar left in the bottom, then screw the lid back on and shake to distribute the vanilla-scented particles evenly. If you don't have vanilla sugar, you may certainly substitute regular granulated sugar for this recipe. The cardamom and zest are optional as well; any spices you like may be used (or omitted entirely), and the zest can just as easily be orange or clementine if you happen to have them. If you don't have or don't want to use the rum (or other spirit of your choice), simply leave it out. Your cake will likely be a bit more firm, but I'm sure just as delicious!


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