I’ll bring you apples, peaches, bananas and pears

I’m at present working my way through a bushel bag of Cider Hill McIntosh apples (apples every which way:  lunch bag apples, apple wedges with slices of sharp cheddar cheese, pork loin roasted with apples and red onions, apple crisps and pies and turnovers) and I love these apples; I rarely tire of a peak season apple.  But what I’m longing for right now is a pear.

Pears and I go way back, and I do mean way back– back to when my brother was an infant and I was a jealous and resentful five year old.  For almost five years I had enjoyed a quasi-only child status (I had an older sister but she was in college and more like a second mother to me anyway) and I didn’t make room for this interloper with grace.  I whined, I complained, I begged my parents to send my brother back.  His meal times, in particular, bugged the heck out of me:  my mother’s eyes intent on my brother and his following her– gazes uninterruptible.  I tried to, believe me, I tried very hard, but I only succeeded in exasperating my mother rather than reclaiming her focus for myself.

Thus exasperated, she must have decided it was time to keep me quiet somehow.  One day, during my brother’s morning Gerber rice cereal and strained fruit feed, my mother gave me my own jar of pear sauce and a baby spoon almost identical to the one she used to shovel the food into my brother’s open and waiting mouth.  No, she wasn’t feeding me like she was feeding him, but I felt singled out and special nonetheless.  My very own jar of food?  Eating straight out of that jar?  And all by myself, I might add, unlike someone I could name who couldn’t do anything for himself?  Well, the novelty of all this kept me occupied and out of my mother’s hair long enough for her to finish breakfast.

Her gesture also established a habit of coaxing good behaviors out of me with gifts of food.  And drink. Someday remind me and I will tell you about the Tom Collins “mocktails” I was bribed with, just a few years later.  (Please note they were “mock” but still, you have to love those crazy 1960s and the culture of cocktail shakers, CO2 dispensers, ice crushers, and ever-present packets of powdered Tom Collins mixers.)  Oh, yes, that’s another story to be told another day.  But not now.

Right now, I am all about the pears.

Baby food pear puree, as you may know, has a lovely, silky smoothness while at the same time retaining the pear’s characteristic sandiness.  And it is deliciously sweet. Still, the childhood satisfaction of baby food pears aside, a fresh pear is best of all.

Eventually I had a fresh one, and I remember that first taste too because it was a pretty big deal to have fresh fruit at home.  You heard that right:  as a youngster I was fresh fruit-deprived.  You see, my mother loved canned fruit.  She would be the first to tell you she was (and still is, for that matter) a lazy eater where fruit was concerned.  When faced with biting through a peel or paring one off, chewing away with sustained chomping or working around a core, spitting seeds or removing pits, my mother said “no thank you” and stuck to her canned goods.  With few exceptions, we ate canned everything– pineapple, fruit cocktail, peaches, apricots, grapefruit, orange sections, and mandarin oranges – for about nine months of the year.  In the fall my mother conceded to buying fresh: apples and Bartlett pears for her children and bananas for herself, so easy to peel and nice and soft inside.

I’m not such a lazy eater, and a fresh Bartlett remains my favorite fall fruit for eating out of hand.  A good fall Bartlett pear at that perfect stage of yellow ripeness will be juicy, sweet, and incomparably buttery in texture.  A good apple has tartness and sturdiness going for it – I couldn’t, for example keep a bushel bag of pears in my fridge without ending up with a pile of bruised and mushy fruit – but even the tastiest apple can’t match a Bartlett’s drip-down-your-chin juiciness.

Up until Monday I had eight Bartletts ripening on my counter, bought over the weekend along with the big bag of Macs and a smaller sack of Newtown Pippins.  On Monday, the pears were just beginning to yellow up, their skins flirting with chartreuse.  All gave slightly at their fattest end under the gentle pressure of my thumb.  Another day of waiting and I would be rewarded with a pear for lunch, my longing fulfilled.

Waiting, though, is sometimes very hard.  And sometimes desire gets the better of me.

I looked at the basket of pears for a long time on Monday morning, as if by staring I might have willed them into ripening before my eyes.  Of course they wouldn’t, I knew that, and I had enough presence of mind to realize that eating one then and there would be a bad idea.  I wanted a perfectly ripe pear after all, not a nearly ripe one.

But I could cook with them.  Hmmm.

Bartlett pears if too ripe won’t be the best bakers; they are rarely, if ever, a good choice for poaching.  The less juicy, crunchier Bosc pears, while not my favorite for eating, make excellent poaching pears, holding up nicely to a prolonged soak in fruit juice- or wine-based, spiced poaching liquids.

But my countertop Bartletts were in ideal condition for baking:  soft but not so soft as to dissolve in the oven’s heat; juicy but not so juicy they would throw off the liquid content of, say, a cake.  For, yes, I had decided on baking cake.  Pear tarts are very nice but given the late morning hour and the rumbling in my stomach, coffeecake sounded just about right.  Homey, comforting, yet also a little out of the ordinary.  A nice change from everything apple.

I’ll spare you reliving the agony that was me trying to decide which one pear coffeecake to make and just admit that in the end I baked three.  Yes, three– an entire Monday morning and eight pears gone in a flash.

All three cakes had pears and almonds, nutmeg and mace in common, but in combinations that yielded three very different results.  Cake One was a tall affair, loaded with chopped pears and dried tart Michigan cherries and crowned with an almond macaroon-like topping.  Cake Two showed off sliced pears nestled on top of a thinner cake of almost pure almond paste, caramel in flavor from a little brown sugar and a lot of painstakingly browned butter.  Cake Three was slightly more humble: diced pears and a little candied ginger folded into a delicately spiced and simple cake batter, topped with crunchy sliced almonds and a sprinkling of spiced sugar as glaze.

Believe it or not, the prospect of sampling three cakes alone was daunting so I enlisted several friends and family members over the course of the day, delivered to some, opened my front door for pick up to others.  I had a definite favorite and was gratified (although somewhat surprised) to see that my favorite was also the clear winner of the friends and family taste test.   As promised to the tasters who went the extra mile on Monday, chowing down slice after slice of cake for the sake of me and my blog entry, here is the recipe for the winner.

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Pear and Dried Cherry Coffeecake

For cake:

  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup extra-light olive oil (NOT extra virgin) or canola oil
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 2 ¼ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp. ground mace
  • 2 large almost ripe Bartlett pears, peeled, cored, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 1/3 cups dried tart cherries

For topping:

  • 7 ounce almond paste, crumbled
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon flour

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray an 8-inch springform pan with nonstick spray. Line pan bottom with an 8” circle of parchment paper and spray that too with nonstick spray.  (At this point, I also like to wrap a sheet of aluminum foil around the outside of my springform to catch any butter/oil leaks.  I’ve had too many smoky ovens and have learned my lesson!)

For the cake, using an electric or stand mixer, beat eggs, sugar, oil, milk, and vanilla bean paste in large bowl until smooth.  Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg and mace.  Add it to the eggs and oil mixture and beat just until combined. By hand, fold in pears and cherries.  Turn batter into prepared pan and smooth the top.

For the topping, crumble almond paste into medium bowl.  Add to this the egg, sugar, and flour. Using a hand mixer, beat until blended and smooth.  Drop by spoonfuls onto the top of the cake batter.

Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out with small moist crumbs attached, and this could take anywhere from an hour and 20 minutes to an hour and 30 minutes.    Watch for overbrowning, but do make sure the cake is cooked all the way through with a toothpick or cake tester.  It should come out of the center nice and clean.  Cool for ten minutes then run a thin knife around the edges of the pan to loosen cake. Remove springform pan’s sides and let cake cool on a rack completely.

When ready to serve, remove the cake from the pan bottom and peel off bottom layer of paper. Transfer cake to plate, cut and eat!

Note: I’ve said this is a great coffeecake, but I can also imagine serving it at the end of a very elegant dinner party, gussied up a little with some wine poached pear slices (Bosc of course) and a little mace whipped cream.  If you try it before I do, let me know!

(PS:  Special thanks to Kathleen Ward Coveyou of Coveyou Family Farm for bringing me the dried tart Michigan cherries all the way from Petoskey!  I’ve had so many baking adventures with them since I saw you.)

©2009  Jane Ward