Fall is in full swing, and that means lots of apples and, more importantly, apple-based desserts. There is another fruit that I see sitting alongside the apple, and that is the pear. I associate the two together because they are both in season during the fall months (and are white inside!). I learned recently that unlike what I thought for so many years, pears are jam-packed with nutrients per calorie. Their skins are high in dietary fiber and full of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. They offer Vitamin C and K and potassium, along with other nutrients. They even have some protein!
Pears are so wonderfully juicy when ripe. But if left sitting around for too long, they are grainy, fall apart, and just taste terrible. That was my dilemma the other day. We bought a boatload of pears from Costco, and they all ripened at the same time. I guess that shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, but even so, I didn’t want our poor planning to mean that we had to send the bulk of the pears to the compost pile. Aside from recruiting the kids to eat pears morning, noon, and night, I figured I could use this as an excuse to bake something with pears–something that I had never done before. My first pick was an upside down cake. I recently tried a run of the mill pineapple upside-down cake, but the topping was runny and grainy, so it ended-up being a flop. I needed to redeem myself–the pear surplus was my ticket into the kitchen again.
For this cake, I wanted a caramel topping, so it was a little trickier than the pineapple upside-down cake, but well-worth taking the risk. This is a spice-less cake so no hiding behind cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Instead of spices, I opted for adding in a little almond extract to the cake batter. For the pears, I would have liked to use Bosc because they are firm, but all I had on hand were Bartlett pears (a.k.a. Williams pears). Bartlett pears are very juicy, so I wasn’t sure how the juices would affect the caramel topping. Would it be runny again? But I’ll take any excuse to try to make caramel, so I plugged on.
I first wanted to take care of the pears. I washed, peeled, cored, and sliced them thinly. I had to keep sane while I tried to arrange them carefully in one layer on the bottom of the parchment-lined pan. [Grease the bottom first so the paper sticks to it.]
I had to remember to keep the bottom part of the pears against the walls of the pan and the pointy-side facing the direction of the center.
Done. Ignoring the fact that the pears started oxidizing and turning brown, I went off to prepare a wet caramel. I found a heavy bottomed pot, made sure it was clean as a whistle, and poured in a little bit of water, a little bit of lemon juice, and a lot of sugar.
I mixed it lightly, but of course sugar crystals then shot up the walls of the pot. That’s not a good thing for caramel, so I took a pastry brush, dipped it in water, and brushed down the sides of the pot with the wet pastry brush to get rid of the sugar crystals. I let the mixture boil and stopped stirring.
Eventually, maybe 8 minutes later, a light amber color started appearing. I swished around the pot a couple of times, but still did not stir. The amber color got darker and darker in a matter of seconds.
When it had a deep enough color, I took it off the burner and whisked in some butter.
I then carefully poured it over the pears. The caramel hardened on the pears very quickly.
But the juices from the pears overwhelmed the caramel, and the caramel began to break down. I was thinking it would be another runny disaster. Nonetheless, I pressed on. I quickly made the cake batter, which was pretty thick.
I dolloped the batter over the pears–since it was too thick too pour–smoothed it out with my small, offset spatula and hoped for the best.
When it came out of the oven, the cake part looked nice and brown, and I didn’t see a runny, caramel topping bubbling up through the top, so things were looking good. I tested for doneness with a long bamboo skewer, just a few times . . . .
I had to flip it over onto a serving plate, all the while praying that the topping wouldn’t be a river of water-like caramel. My prayers came true–the topping was not a river but stayed put where it was supposed to be.
I had a request from one of the gremlins in the house to try the cake before it completely cooled. The caramel coupled with pears was absolutely delicious! Because of the juices from the pears, the caramel was not a grainy mess, but instead melted in my mouth.
The next day, the cake was even better.
This adventure led me to a perfect fall cake that is truly something special. I had to make it again the next day–given that we still had so many pears to use up. No one complained.