When I was in college, a friend sent around a forward that asked people to answer a bunch of questions and then send the completed questionnaire back to the sender and everyone else on the list. One of the questions read something like, “Rules are… (a) meant to be broken! or (b) meant to be followed, of course.”
I so wanted to be the kind of “Down with the system!” person who would reply (a). I mean, wasn’t that the point of college? But alas, aside from my penchant for jaywalking and occasional flouting of the “Dry Clean Only” label, I’ve pretty much been a (b) person all my life. It’s not that I don’t question the rules or that I wouldn’t break an unjust one; it’s more that, in my life, the rules within the bounds of breakability usually aren’t worth breaking. The payoff isn’t big enough.
That pretty much sums up my attitude, until recently, toward baking. Unlike cooking, where you can throw in a splash of this and a sprinkle of that, baking is a science. It’s chemistry — acids and bases and emulsifiers and proteins. If you add too much leavening or too little acid, you’re toast (so to speak).
And although the method can vary from cake to cake and cookie to cookie, you end up working within a pretty small set of parameters. Take the method for making a cake: you mix the dry ingredients together, beat the butter or oil with sugar, add eggs one at a time, and then bring everything together, with the help of some liquid. There are scientific reasons for this (coating the sugar with the fat separates the sugar molecules and makes a lighter cake, adding the eggs one at a time allows them to emulsify). And from what I’ve learned, you don’t mess with science (just ask the Incredible Hulk).
Then I saw a recipe for a pear cake by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid that broke all the rules. They tell you to mix the dry ingredients together, and then just dump the eggs and melted butter into the flour and mix, adding the pears followed by some milk — as necessary — to moisten the batter. As necessary?? In a cake?
Then I realized this was my chance. I could be that “(a)” person, break all the rules and (gulp) see what happens. So I did. And as long as I was at it, I decided to tweak the recipe a little bit. I figured as long as I was breaking the rules, I might as well go the whole hog.
And you know what? The cake was tasty! It’s one of those utterly homey desserts that you’d want sitting on the kitchen counter, begging you to “even off” its edges. I wouldn’t serve this at a dinner party, but it’s the kind of recipe you’d turn to when you want to throw together a homemade treat at a moment’s notice.
So have I turned over a new leaf? Am I going to start shaking my fist at the law? Probably not. But I do feel emboldened to push the limits a little further when it comes to baking — because with baking, the stakes aren’t that high, and when the experiment works, the payoff is definitely worth it.
New Year’s Pear Cake
Adapted from Home Baking by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
A quick note: In the spirit of “breaking the rules,” feel free to break the ones given here! Throw in some cinnamon or cloves, or even some cardamom, which goes wonderfully with pears. You can also, as Alford and Duguid suggest, substitute apples or plums for the pears, in which case you should toss them with some sugar first. Just make sure the fruit is ripe and flavorful; the dense cake almost seems to be there just to hold the fruit together.
About 1-1.5 lbs pears (enough for 2 cups chopped)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar (plus extra for sprinkling)
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled slightly (plus extra for greasing the pan)
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons milk (or more “as necessary”)
2 tablespoons flavorful honey, such as wildflower (you can substitute clover)
1 tablespoon hot water
Adjust your oven rack to the lower third of the oven. Place a baking stone or baking sheet on the rack and preheat the oven to 350F.
Brush an 8″x8″ square pan with some melted butter. Line the pan with parchment paper, using a long enough piece so that it comes up and over two of the sides. Butter the paper.
Peel, core and chop the pears into 1/2-inch chunks. Place them in a bowl and set aside (you can squirt with a touch of lemon juice if you want; I didn’t).
Mix the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together in a medium bowl until well combined. Add the eggs, butter and vanilla and beat until you have a stiff batter (I used an electric mixer for this, which made this easier, but you could do it by hand).
Fold in the pears, then add the milk and mix until the batter is completely moistened. Add more milk, if necessary.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Sprinkle the top with a little sugar, then place in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
Remove the pan from the oven and, using the parchment paper, lift the cake onto a rack to cool. Mix the honey with the hot water and brush the top of the cake with the honey glaze. Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes to allow the glaze to set.
I’m sure this would be very tasty eaten warm, but I let it cool completely and ate it the next day.
Yield: 6-8 servings