It's National Pear Month, and pears are abundant at my local farmer's market (which stays open through December - yay!) Pears are native to Europe, Africa, and Asia, and were likely brought to North America as seeds because once picked, the fruits don't have a very long shelf life. The most typical pear found in American markets are Anjou and Bartletts. Anjous can be found with either red or green skin, and are a bit less sweet and firmer than Bartletts. Barletts are super drippy when you bite into them when fully ripe, and have a slightly boozy flavor. One of our local orchards also cultivates Asian pears, which are also pretty firm but quite tasty.
I picked up a few beautiful Anjou pears at the H Street Farmers Market this past weekend with a few ideas. But when I go home my favorite 10" seasoned cast iron skillet was sitting on the range and I immediately decided to make an upside down cake. I love the way the pears caramelize in the pan and with the brown sugar and butter create an irresistible crust. I channeled memories of Bordeaux's famous Caneles and made a custard-like buttermilk cake to surround the pears. This cake works best with ripe Anjou pears. Because I like the booziness of a ripe Bartlett but needed the firmness of the Anjou, I also added a little rum.
This cake may seem a bit intimidating, but if your skillet is seasoned it will not stick and will flip out with ease. Serve with vanilla or cinnamon ice cream or nothing at all - my son and I put a serious dent in this cake eating it right out of the pan.
A well seasoned 10" cast iron pan
2-3 Anjou pears (about 1 pound), peeled, cored and sliced (1/8" slices)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup plus two tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup unbleached cake flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of fine kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger root
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
1 tablespoon dark rum
2 large whole eggs
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup whole buttermilk
2/3 cups cane sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, slightly beat the eggs and egg yolks. Beat in the cane sugar, then the ginger, vanilla, and rum. Lastly gently beat in the buttermilk until smooth- do not let it become frothy. Stir in the dry ingredients 1/4 cup at a time, until all of the flour has been incorporated and you have a smooth batter. Set aside.
4. Heat the skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter and brush a little of it around the inside of the pan. Sprinkle the brown sugar into the bottom of the pan. Using a wooden spoon, stir the butter and brown sugar together until the sugar starts to melt and turns slightly darker - about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.
5. Arrange the pear slices in the hot pan with the caramel. You can make a spiral, star, or even a free form pattern. Just make sure the entire bottom of the pan is covered but don't pack so tightly that cake batter can't reach the bottom of the pan.
6. Pour the cake batter over the pears in the pan, making sure to cover the entire circumference.
7. Slide the pan into the oven and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the cake bubbles in the pan and springs back to the touch. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for about 15 minutes. Run a butter knife around the edge of the pan, hold a plate firmly on top of the pan, then quickly flip over the pan. The cake should come right out!
8. Serve this cake warm - it is best served immediately but will keep in the fridge for about 3 days.