Isn't it wonderful when winter slooooooowly starts to recede and bit by bit, you can see the selection of fruit (and vegetables!) improving? Where before there were only forlorn and ridiculously out of season mangoes and strawberries, suddenly the wonderful deciduous fruits are reappearing – and English cherries and strawberries can't be far behind!
As a professed non-sweet-tooth, I put my recent flurry of sweet stuff (peach clafoutis, cherry muffins) down to being overexcited at the sight of all this fruit, And when the raw materials are so beautiful, how on earth are you meant to resist popping it in your basket and making something special with it?
I have written about synchronicity before – the unlikely convergence of seemingly unrelated events – and this cake is another example. Let's see…
1. Invite friends to lunch and start pondering what to make for dessert. (As an aside, the day before the friends came to lunch, a colleague asked what I was making. I rattled off the details of all three courses and she was amazed. "So you already know EVERYTHING you are going to make?". Realised that the idea of being 24 hours away from having 6 friends over for a meal and NOT knowing what I am making is enough to make me break out in hives. You know you're a food blogger when…!)
2. Find these glorious Rosemarie pears and buy a few without really knowing what you want to do with them.
3. Chat to a friend who says I must check out this restaurant she went to, called Ottolenghi.
4. Have a look on the web for said restaurant, browse the site and come across a cake recipe featuring… pears!
5. Make the cake as a dessert for abovementioned friends and it is declared a roaring success. One of friends leaves behind a Guardian Weekend magazine.
5. After the guests leave, Nick flicks through the magazine and says I should look at it as there are some yummy recipes. I take a look and who are the recipes by? None other than Yotam Ottolenghi, who has just released his first cookbook.
Synchronicity at work!
Of course, this did mean using an untested recipe from a source that I had never used before… But I'm not known for my caution of foresight in the kitchen so I plunged in despite the fact that the cake was being baked on the morning of the lunch. And there was no Plan B if it flopped. The best advice I can give anyone embarking on this mission is to keep your wits about you and never assume that the recipe is correct just because it is in black & white!
Although the recipe talks about "pouring" the batter into the cake tin, once my batter was mixed, there was NO WAY it was of a pouring consistency, and I was a little short on ground almonds so my batter would have been wetter than most. Read the recipe again but no – no mention of liquid, apart from the tsp of vanilla essence! So I took an executive decision to add some milk to get it to proper batter consistency. I didn't measure the milk, so please exercise discretion with my guesstimate of 150ml. Add half and see if you get something pourable. If not, add more. The original recipe also did not call for cloves, but I added some to mine and was very happy with the result.
The biggest crisis of confidence came with the baking time. The recipe said 35 mins at 170C. But after 35 minutes, the centre of the cake resembled the texture of cooling magma: crisp on top but oooh, see how it jiggles below the surface! Bearing in mind that I was going to have to flip this baby upside down at some point to serve, I took another executive decision along the lines of "that damn thing is staying in the damn oven till it's firm – I don't care how long it takes!". Eventually after 75 minutes, a skewer in the middle came out clean.
And if, like me, you use a springform cake tin, unless you particularly like scraping burnt caramel off the inside of your oven, put the tin in the oven on a baking sheet lined with aluminium foil – the caramel WILL escape the tin, and at least that way you can discard the foil and laugh off the oven-cleaning.
Enough technicalities – how did it turn out? Absolutely fabulously! It was spicy and gooey and the tart cranberries were the perfect foil for the sweet pears. One of our guests who never really cares for dessert practically licked his plate clean, and as far as I'm concerned that's the best testimonial you can get.
CRANBERRY & PEAR UPSIDE DOWN CAKE (serves 8)
For the poached pears:
For the caramel topping:
40g dry cranberries or 50g fresh
For the cake batter:
1 tsp vanilla essence
200g ground almonds
¼ tsp salt
80g plain flour
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
Peel the pears and then in half lengthways. Immediately place the fruit in a saucepan containing the water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, lemon zest and juice. You can Place a disc of greaseproof directly on the liquid so the pears remain submerged, but I just turned them to float cut side down and they were fine.
Bring the liquid to the boil and then simmer until the pears are just slightly undercooked – this should take anywhere between 8 and 15 minutes. Check with a sharp knife that they are tender outside but firm in the centre. Leave them aside to cool down in the cooking liquid. The poaching of the pears can be done the day before and the pears kept in the fridge overnight in their cooking liquid, which is what I did.
Heat up the oven to 170°C. Lightly grease a 20cm round cake tin and line its bottom and sides with greaseproof paper.
Place the sugar for the caramel in a clean heavy-based saucepan together with just enough water to moisten all the sugar. Place on a low heat. Without stirring, watch the sugar turn into a rich caramel colour. Make sure to keep your eyes on the sugar at all times as it can easily burn.
As soon as you reach the desired colour, remove the pan from the heat quickly but carefully. With your face at a safe distance, add the butter in a few chunks. Stir quickly with a wooden spoon until the butter has melted and pour onto the base of the cake tin. Carefully tilt the tin to spread the caramel evenly.
Drain the pears. If using dried cranberries, soak them in some of the pear cooking juices. Drain after 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cut each pear half into into 3 wedges lengthways. Remove the stem and core with a knife. Arrange the pears and the cranberries over the caramel.
To make the cake, sieve together the flour and the spices. Use the paddle attachment of the mixer to cream the butter and sugar until light and airy. Gradually add the eggs and vanilla and milk. Add the ground almonds and citrus zest and mix just to combined. Repeat with sifted flour but stop when all ingredients are moist – don’t over-mix.
Once the batter is smooth, pour it carefully over the pears and cranberries making sure you don’t move them too much out of their place. Smooth the batter with a palette knife. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 75 minutes. Test with a skewer to make sure the cake is dry inside and then emove from the oven.
Whilst the cake is still warm, but not hot, place a flat plate upside-down on top of the tin and briskly turn over. Remove the tin and the paper, and serve decorated with cranberries and accompanied by whipped cream with an added splash of brandy.
I am submitting the picture of the bowl of beautiful Rosemarie pears as my entry for April's Click event. This monthly photo event is hosted by my lovely friends Bee and Jai over at Jugalbandi and the theme for the month is au naturel, or food in its raw state. The deadline is today, so get your fresh & raw snaps in ASAP, using their nifty entry form!