My favorite pear cake (or fixing things that are not broken)

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Talking to my mom earlier, I told her about the cake that I was baking. She said, “Oh, cake, what’s the occasion?” There was a pause and I responded, “Well, there were pears at the market and they were pretty. So now there is cake.”

As I write this, I am still waiting for the cake to cool so I will have to report back on the final results later, but today I took one of my very favorite cake recipes and changed a bunch of things. Nothing major. The bones are still there. I just made a few small tweaks.

This recipe for Bittersweet Chocolate Pear Cake comes by way of Smitten Kitchen, easily the best of all the home cooking blogs. You take a few eggs and whip them into oblivion. You add a little sugar and white some more. Then you add a basic flour-baking powder-salt mixture and browned butter (hooray) in alternating measures. You pour it into a springform cake pan and sprinkle diced pear and chocolate chunks on top. Here is what it looks like just before it goes into the oven:

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It takes about 40 minutes in the oven. I have made it many times, occasionally as a birthday cake and it is always greeted with enthusiasm. Today, however, I made three small adjustments.

First, I swapped out the 3/4 cup of bittersweet chocolate for 1/2 cup white chocolate and 1/4 cup dark chocolate. This was not so much a decision born of inspiration as a decision born of the contents of my chocolate drawer. (Wait, let us pause so I can explain the chocolate drawer. It is not as weird as it sounds. I have a big butchers block in my kitchen. It has two doors concealing a shelved spaced where pots and pans are stacked precariously as well as three smallish drawers. One of these drawers houses various kitchen doodads. One houses all my Indian spices. And the third and top drawer is the chocolate drawer. When you bake a lot, you end up with a lot of chocolate. Cocoa, baking chocolate, unsweetened, semi sweet, milk, dark, white, some in bar form and some chip form. It easily fills a drawer. Plus I get to reference my chocolate drawer, which delights me no end. End of pause.) So, with no bittersweet in sight but a half bar of high quality white chocolate and a handful of dark chocolate chips staring at me, the decision was an easy one.

The second adjustment was replacing all purpose flour with cake flour. I wanted a finer crumb here. And this is an easy switch to make. For every cup of flour, you use one cup plus two tablespoons of cake flour.

The last was born of the fact that I always miss a little hint of vanilla when tasting this cake but never wanted to add it the delicate alchemy of wet ingredients at work here for fear of screwing something up. Then it hit me. The diced pears! Before I started on the eggs and butter, I diced the pears and drizzled 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste over them, tossing them to coat them.

The baking of the cake hit a small snag. I shook the pan a little to check doneness. It was still wobbly in the center and my shaking instantly deflated the center. Ugh, this is such a rookie mistake on my part. You never shake the pan. The cake should still taste lovely though. It just has a little dip in the center.

UPDATE: And I can report that the cake’s flavor was in no way lessened by the slight dip in the center. This pear cake was delicious. The cake flour produced a much more tender crumb. The white and dark chocolate result in a cake that is less sweet and more layer upon layer of flavor. Also, the vanilla glazed pears were just lovely. Not sure why everything sank all the way to the bottom rather than being dotted throughout the batter, but it worked just fine for me.

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Chocolate Pear Cake
(Adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, at room-temperature
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup white sugar
3 pears, peeled, in a small dice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1/2 cup white chocolate chunks
1/4 cup dark chocolate chunks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8 inch springform cake pan* and set aside.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a small bowl and set aside.

Place the diced pears in a bowl, drizzle with the vanilla bean paste, and then toss to coat them. Set aside.

Now, make the browned butter. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium high heat, stirring pretty regularly (though not constantly). As the butter solids begin to brown, scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. When butter has achieved a nice color (think that warm brown that has the tiniest hint of red in it, not quite amber but approaching it), pour off into another container and set aside. (If you leave the butter in a hot saucepan, it will keep cooking the butter even if you take it off the heat and you will risk burning it. So pouring it off is your best bet. Make sure to set aside somewhere warm so the butter does not solidify.)

Place the eggs in the bowl of a standing mixer and, using the whisk attachment, whip the eggs on high speed for five to ten minutes (depending on your mixer, a professional mixer can get it done in five, my mixer took ten) until the eggs are thick, custardy and doubled in size. Add the sugar and beat for a few more minutes.**

Now switch out the whisk attachment for the paddle attachment. With the mixer on stir speed, add the flour mixture and butter in alternating measures (1/3 flour mixture then 1/2 butter then 1/3 flour mixture then 1/2 butter then 1/3 flour mixture). As soon as the last flour mixture is incorporated, stop the mixer and pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Sprinkle the pears and the chocolate*** over the top. They will sink into the batter (if not immediately then certainly during baking).

Bake the cake for about 40 minutes until the top is golden brown and springs back to the touch. Cool on a rack and then serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

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* Most springform pans are 9 inches and that is fine to use here. I like the 8 inch because it results in a slightly higher cake that is still sizable enough to cut up and serve to a roomful of people.

** Make sure you do not let the eggs and sugar sit after being combined. You never want to let eggs and sugar sit together unless the recipe is specifically instructing you to do so. You may heard the expression that sugar can “cook” eggs. This isn’t technically true. Only heat can cook eggs But what sugar can do is absorb the water naturally present in eggs and cause the egg proteins to coagulate and clump together. (Salt can do this too.) So, letting eggs and sugar sit changes the structure of the eggs.  (A few minutes is fine, but don’t walk away from them for too long.)

*** The original recipe called for a 3/4 cup of bittersweet chocolate. I quite liked swapping this out for dark and white chocolate, though I might switch the ratio next time and do a half cup dark chocolate and a quarter cup white chocolate.

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