Friday, 31 July 2015

Caramelized Pear Upside Down Cake

One of my favorite spots in San Francisco is the Ferry Building. It is hard not to fall in love with the Ferry Building, with its waterfront view, the eclectic range of stores inside, and the opportunities for people watching. For a foodie, the Ferry Building is a veritable gem. It is home to several specialty food stores, including a charcuterie that sells cured meat of all manner, a store that specializes in fine cheese, a bakery that confines itself to gluten free treats, and a couple of stellar grocery stores that stock obscure ingredients I have encountered in few other parts of the Bay Area. 

There's also the mysteriously named ice-cream store, Humphrey Slocombe, with a penchant for bold flavors, including salt and pepper, strawberry black olive, banana chai, and toast and jam. Being outrageously risk averse, I have yet to venture in the direction of flavors that far removed from trusty vanilla. Still, I have to admit that the somewhat unusual flavors that I have sampled at Humphrey Slocombe, including the lemon basil sorbet and the brown butter ice cream, have never disappointed. This might explain why a long line of customers stretching several feet from the counter is a permanent fixture at the store. 

Humphrey Slocombe is only one of many iconic Bay Area stores that revolve around. Another favorite of mine is Berkeley Bowl, where we religiously shopped for groceries every weekend during the few short months that we lived in Berkeley. Berkeley Bowl transforms grocery shopping into an adventure. If it weren't for a fidgety shopping partner in tow, I would have spend hours in its aisles, marveling at the exotic fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and condiments for sale.

But there is at least one San Francisco store, much loved by fellow foodies, that I have yet to visit: Bi-Rite Market. Having heard high praise being lavished on Bi-Rite, when I came across a recipe for Bi-Rite's Upside Down Pear Cake, I knew I had to try it out. 

The idea of an upside down cake has been brewing in my head for some time now. What I enjoy most about baking is the excitement of transforming a pan full of dull batter into something extraordinarily different (and delicious) in a hot oven. Doubling the fun by having a bottom layer of raw fruit melt into a gooey caramelized topping felt like an irresistible idea. 

My original mission was to use juicy peaches or nectarines - among my favorite summer fruit - for the fruit layer. But fully ripe stone fruit can be hard to find in grocery stores. They are sold half-ripe, so you need plenty of patience and a few days, before they are ready to be eaten, raw or baked. 

And so, I settled on using a few deliciously ripe pears as prescribed by the original recipe. For aesthetic reasons, I used thin slices of pears rather than quarters as suggested by the original recipe. I also browned the butter used for the topping, which lent a nutty tone to the pear topping. Next time, I might use chunkier pieces of pear to increase the fruit to cake ratio, because the topping was the best part, and also reduce the amount of butter used in the topping. This is a recipe I will turn to again.  

Bi Rite Caramelized Pear Cake (serves 6-8) (with minor modifications)

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
3/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
2 1/4 pounds Bosc pears, peeled, sliced, cored 
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup grated peeled Bosc pears (about 2 medium)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Melt butter in skillet over low heat. I used salted butter, and browned and strained it to remove the salty residue. This gave me a delicious nutty flavored clarified butter, akin to ghee. Remove from heat. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Arrange sliced pears in a design atop sugar.

Whisk flour, 2/3 cup sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, ground ginger and salt in medium bowl to blend. Whisk eggs, oil, and vanilla in large bowl to blend. Mix in grated pears. Mix dry ingredients into egg mixture.

Carefully pour batter over pears in baking pan. I used a 9 inch square pan. Per original recipe, 10 inch diameter round pan will also work. Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40-50 minutes. Cool cake in skillet on rack 20 minutes. Run knife around skillet sides to loosen. Place plate on skillet over cake. Invert cake onto plate. When I inverted the cake, there was syrup that I had pooled at the bottom of the cake. This is fine. Let the syrup soak into the cake. Serve warm.