I’ve been craving cookies, cake, chocolate and all things crunchy since my 18-year old daughter, Lindsey, left to study in Spain two weeks ago. I’d planned to invest my new, empty nest free time in writing, gardening and cleaning up my house. Instead, I’m baking, frying and eating my way up to a larger pants size.
It’s like my ass has volunteered to single-handedly fill in–or rather up–the void created by Lindsey’s departure.
This weekend, my project was a Gingerbread Pear Upside Down Cake. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
It started over a decade ago with this cake, which was the Martha Stewart Living Dessert of the Month in November of 1998:
Tiny poached pears glistening in a gingerbread trough and drizzled with caramel vanilla sauce. I fell in love, first with the photo and then with the description. Next thing I knew, I’d committed to making this dessert–along with two other desserts and a full turkey dinner–for my in-laws at their house on Christmas Day.
Ron and I had only been married for eight years at the time, and I was still trying to impress Nana with my culinary skills. Nana’s idea of baked good heaven was a Dunkin’ Donut–and I wanted to show her how much better homemade could be.
Unfortunately, I cook the way I used to tackle the 600 yard run they forced us to make in junior high (Part of the dread Presidential Fitness Test. Do they still make kids suffer through that?). When I ran The 600, as we called it, I could never get the hang of pacing myself. So I did what came naturally: I sprinted ahead with a tremendous burst of energy, then slowed–first to a walk, and eventually to a crawl. Finally, I stumbled over the finish just barely–and just ahead of the girls who had walked the entire distance.
Baking the cake was very similar. On Christmas morning, I staged all, of my ingredients, then poached the pears with confidence, smilomg as I inhaled the cloud of vanilla-citrus steam emerging from the stockpot. I measured cake ingredients, stirred to mix, giggled at the spicy ginger-cloves taste the batter left on my tongue.
As the cake baked, I turned my attention to stuffing, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. By the time the cake emerged from the oven, I was exhausted. Ugh, I still have to do caramel sauce, I thought.
I stood at the stove, watching and stirring, watching and stirring. Next time I’m making something I can dcook sitting down, I thought.
Finally, it was time to cut the pear channel into the center of the gingerbread. I followed the directions, but evidentially my tiny pears weren’t tiny enough. They wouldn’t slide into the trough and when I pushed a little, the walls of the cake bowed outward like the stomach of a pregnant woman. #%$!!*^ I muttered.
I grabbed a 40-year old steak knife–the sharpest knife Nana owns–and attempted to remove a thin sliver of cake from either side of the pear well. Now the pears fit–but the cake trough buckled inward.
Ughhh! I sighed. My feet hurt, my head throbbed and I’d lost my appetite. Why was a making this cake anyway? I slopped spoonfuls of caramel onto the cake and plopped the cake onto the table. “Done,” I announced, then collapsed into my chair.
The finished cake leaned slightly, but overall it looked pretty impressive. I took a bite. The pears complimented the spice of the gingerbread perfectly. Not bad.
But it wasn’t my opinion that mattered. I stared at Nana until she looked up from her plate. “It’s good,” she said. I felt the veins in my forehead pulse. After hours of baking that was all she had to say. After hours of work, I hadn’t even come close to my goal of dethroning Dunkin’ Donuts.
I retired Martha’s cake to my list of one-hit-wonder dishes–recipes that are too exhausting to ever make again.
Since then, I’ve been trying to come up with a way to do pear and gingerbread where the active part occurs during the first few steps–while my enthusiasm for baking is still intact.
The answer is this upside-down cake. All of the tiring work (if you consider cutting and coring pears tiring) takes place at the beginning of the process. At the end, when you’ve lost interest in baking all together and wish you’d painted your toenails instead, all you’ll have left to do is to flip the cake onto a plate and serve it.
It’s a race that even I can finish.
Gingerbread Pear Upside-Down Cake
Adapted slightly from the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts
Note: I researched several upside-down cake recipes to figure out how to make the pear part, then used Moosewood’s Gingerbread with Pears recipe verbatim for the cake. Why tamper with perfection? Their cake is moist and has barely any fat –which helps to make up for the half-stick used for the top. But you can probably use any gingerbread cake recipe with equally wonderful results.
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
2 egg whites
1/2 cup unsulphured molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1. Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Lightly oil a 9-inch round baking pan (must have two-inch or higher sides).
2. Peel the pears. Cut lengthwise into halves, then in half again to make quarters. Cut each quarter in half again. At this point, each pair should be cut into eight fairly equal-sized wedges. Core each wedge, then place four of them at the center of the pan, tips touching like a pinwheel. Fill in with four more wedges, then work outward, laying the pear wedges to make a flower-like pattern. When you get to the outside, cut a portion off of a few wedges to create crescents that fit the remaining space.
3. Chop the remaining pear wedges into small bites and set aside.
4. Place the butter and brown sugar in a small saucepan. Heat low, stirring constantly just until the sugar and butter combine. The sugar doesn’t have to melt, but the mixture should be a consistent texture and no longer look like sugar plopped into a butter puddle. Pour evenly over the pears.
5. Sift the flour, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, salt and baking soda into a bowl. Mix and set aside.
6. In a second bowl, beat the egg whites slightly. Mix in molasses, buttermilk and lemon juice. Add to the dry ingredients and stir just until combined. Don’t over-mix.
7. Stir the remaining pear pieces into the batter–in as few strokes as possible. Then pour the batter into the baking pan over the pears. The batter will come up to within about a quarter inch of the top of the baking pan.
8. Place the pan in the center of the oven and bake until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean–about 45-55 minutes. Remove cake from the oven and cool until the pan can be handled easily–but the cake is still warm. Loosen the sides of the cake with a knife, flip the cake onto a plate and serve.