Mary Ellen Rae's Pear and Cardamom Upside-Down Cake
October 31, 2005
Oh, LA Times, how swiftly you have redeemed yourself. Despite my attempts at being fair and balanced, I couldn't deny that the NY Times was winning out as of late. But with this here recipe, the LA Times has managed a real comeback. In Betty Baboujon's (what a name - it wouldn't stop repeating itself in my head all weekend) article about pears two weeks ago, she published a recipe developed by one of the LA Times Test Kitchen cooks, Mary Ellen Rae.
A simple white cake flavored with cardamom is baked on top of a brown-sugar caramel and a mess of sliced, peeled pears. The outcome was delicious - a crunchy, melty topping along with a tender-crumbed, delicately spiced cake. The recipe calls for fresh green cardamom to be pulverized in a spice grinder. For those of us who can't be bothered, I recommend just using the bottled stuff (I like a bottle of this, which I store in the freezer to give myself the illusion that it stays fresher than just hanging out in the cupboard). The LA Times has a bit of a love affair with cardamom and with good reason - it's lovely in northern European baked goods, but also in southeast Asian savory dishes.
A slice still warm from the oven was total nirvana, but it was also pretty great hours later, at room temperature (and as an ending to a roast-chicken-mashed-potatoes-glazed-carrots-aren't-we-traditional-and-middle-American meal that was preceded by a definitely untraditional exhibition of a certain someone's ability to not only do the Running Man but, after some coaching from one of our dinner companions, the Roger Rabbit as well. And no, there are no pictures of this feat, you'll just have to take my word for it). According to my dear coworker (who got the only remaining slice this morning), the cake was good two days later, too.
To make the caramel at the bottom of the cake, I melted some butter in a pan, then added the brown sugar. Oddly, this mixture seized up almost like a pate-a-choux batter and wouldn't really melt properly. I did my best to ignore this.
When I had had enough of stirring this viscous mixture around in the pan, I spread it at the bottom of the cake pan, then arranged two sliced and peeled pears on top.
Using my spanking new mixer (It's amazing! It has six different power levels! Oh, the joy of creaming butter at a low speed and not besmirching my clean kitchen walls. It takes so little to make me happy, doesn't it?) I mixed up the cake batter and folded in the cardamom, which is almost overpowering sniffed at in the jar, but mellows out into this wonderful, exotic flavor when baked. The batter went on top of the pears and the whole thing went into the oven until it was golden brown.
After resting for a few minutes on a rack, the cake pan was turned around onto a plate (or, you know, glass pie dish) and rested a bit longer there before I eased off the pan. Yum.
Pear and Cardamom Upside-Down Cake
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom (from about 6 to 8 pods)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, room temperature, divided
3/4 cup packed golden brown sugar
2 firm-ripe Anjou pears
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk, room temperature
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pan.
2. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together. Stir in the cardamom and set aside.
3. Melt one-fourth cup butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sugar has melted and combined with the butter. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, spreading it to reach the sides.
4. Peel the pears, cut in half and remove the core and stem. Cut each half crosswise into one-fourth-inch-thick slices. Arrange the pear slices in a slightly overlapping circle around the cake pan, starting at the outer rim. Finish with several slices in the center. Sprinkle the pears with the lemon juice. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
5. Beat the remaining one-half cup butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until soft and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl when needed. Alternately add the flour mixture and the milk, beating after each addition just until combined.
6. Gently spoon the cake batter on top of the pears, smoothing out to the edge of the pan and making sure the cake batter fills in around the pears.
7. Bake until the top is a deep golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Place the cake on a rack to cool for 5 minutes in the pan.
8. Run a small spatula or knife around the edge of the pan and invert onto a cake plate, leaving the pan on the cake for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.