Brown Sugar, Pear & Pistachio Cake
A winter pear cake with ginger and brown butter
from Stella Parks, Table 310, Lexington, KY
“My early memories are baking with a babysitter with boxed cake mixes and cans of frosting,” Stella Parks says of her pre–culinary school training. Later, using her grandmother’s old cookbooks and cooking magazines, the Kentucky native began experimenting with recipes and decorating techniques. “When creating a dessert, I want it to be an experience,” she says. “Even my cookies are sized to fit an adult hand the same way a cookie fits your hand as a child.” That attention to detail went into creating this winter pear cake. Moist and rich with ginger and brown butter, it draws on flavors typical of a fall carrot cake to spotlight an ingredient local to Parks’s home state. “My parents live in a home built before George Washington was president,” she says. “There are gnarled old pear trees out back—winter pears. Way too hard to eat, but they make a great cake.”
Brown Sugar, Pear & Pistachio Cake with
Ginger Buttercream Frosting and Oven-Dried Pear Chips
Ingredients (Serves 12)
4 sticks butter
2 lbs. (6–8) winter pears, or unripe Bosc or Bartlett pears, scrubbed clean
6 large eggs
3 cups brown sugar
3 tsp. baking soda
1½ tsp. baking powder
1½ tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
3 tsp. vanilla extract
4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 lb. (3 cups) toasted pistachios, roughly chopped
GINGER BUTTERCREAM FROSTING:
1 cup egg whites, about 10 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
½ tsp. kosher salt
8 sticks unsalted butter, softened and cut into 2-inch chunks
4 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. freshly grated ginger
2 tbsp. powdered ginger
OVEN-DRIED PEAR CHIPS:
¾ cup pear juice (or water)
¾ cup sugar
Juice from half a lemon
3 very pretty, symmetrical winter (or Bosc or Bartlett) pears
CAKE: Adjust oven rack to center. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line three 8-inch round cake pans with parchment, then lightly butter and flour.
In a small lightly colored saucepan, melt butter over low heat. When it has completely liquefied, turn heat to medium to brown the butter. It will bubble, and brown bits will form on the bottom of the pan. When the sputtering stops, strain butter through cheesecloth, and set aside to cool. You should have 1½ cups.
Core the pears, leaving the peel on, and shred using the large side of a box grater or the medium-size grating attachment on a food processor. Gather shredded fruit into a triple thickness of cheesecloth or a thin cotton dish towel, and squeeze the liquid from the pears, capturing ¾ cup of pear juice (for the pear chip recipe).
In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs, brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg at medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy. Then drizzle in brown butter and add vanilla. Add flour, and stir until just incorporated. Stir in shredded pear and pistachios gently. Divide the batter evenly among the three pans.
Bake for 25–30 minutes, or until the cakes have puffed and are lightly browned. Remove to a rack and let cool entirely before peeling away the parchment paper.
To assemble the cake, generously spread buttercream frosting between layers before stacking. Frost the sides and top once with a thin “crumb coat.” Chill cake for 30 minutes, then frost sides and top again with a thick layer. Chill well. Decorate with pear chips.
GINGER BUTTERCREAM FROSTING: Combine egg whites, sugar, and salt in a medium-size mixing bowl. Set it over a pan of barely simmering water. Whisk the mixture gently until it warms to between 145 and 150 degrees. Remove from heat. Using a mixer, beat on medium-high speed until the egg whites double in volume and turn snowy white and the bowl is completely cool, about 10–15 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low and add in butter, one chunk at a time, giving each addition several seconds to incorporate. (You’ll see the meringue deflate during the first few additions.) Add in vanilla and both gingers, and continue whipping until evenly incorporated. Store in the refrigerator up to one week. Whip again before frosting.
OVEN-DRIED PEAR CHIPS: Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside. Combine pear juice (or water) and sugar in a small saucepan, and cook over medium heat until sugar has dissolved. Stir in lemon juice. With a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice both sides of the pears vertically into ¹⁄8-inch-thick chips, placing each slice into the syrup as soon as it’s cut. Let slices stand for ten minutes. Remove each slice, letting the excess syrup drip back into the pot, and transfer to the baking sheet. Bake until the slices feel very dry, about 1½ hours, turning them over midway.