I ran into a friend at an event over the weekend. “Are you baking lots of pies and tarts these days?” she asked.
“No,” I said, then immediately wished I had come up with a friendlier reply. “No” is a conversation stopper. We stood there staring awkwardly into our cups of hot cider until I thought up something else to discuss.
The truth is I haven’t made pie for 20 years and feel a little embarrassed about it. During peak fruit seasons, people like to talk about pie — cherry pie in cherry season, peach pie in peach season, etc. — and always expect me to join in.
It’s not that I don’t like pie. I feel upward of neutral about pies in general, and truly adore a few types (cherry, mince).
Moreover, I wrote one of my first-ever, favorite big magazine features about pie, and became so smitten with the topic that my enthusiasm inspired my sister to make a short film about pie. What got me excited was learning that pie crust was both the Tupperware and Corning casserole dish of its (ancient) day. Made of just flour and water, it dried hard as clay, and provided a way to store and/or cook soft, perishable ingredients. In the Middle Ages, a particularly hospitable nobleman was known to enclose live creatures such as frogs or birds in pie crust for the sole purpose of delighting his guests when the crust was cut and the filling scampered away.
But much as I like the notion of crust, said crust is a big part of why I don’t make pie. I am a perfectionist, and our current ideal of a pie crust laughs at people like me, always reminding us that ours could be flakier, more tender, more richly golden — not to mention better crimped, vented and/or latticed.
Finally, pie filling is simply not my favorite thing to do with fruit. I’d rather eat it out of hand, slice it into a salad or bake it into a cake. For the past few autumns, I’ve made variations on Marie-Helene’s Apple Cake, a recipe that was written down by Dorie Greenspan after spending several hours watching Marie-Helene make her cake with un tout petit peu of this and a soupcon of that.
In other words, it’s a recipe based on inspiration, imperfection and improvisation, and thus right up my alley. It’s so full of fruit it feels almost healthy, its melting, moist texture more like that of a British steamed pudding than, say, a carrot cake. It also keeps well: Leftovers make for a fine breakfast or teatime snack.
So if I run into you at an event, I hope you will forgive my lack of eloquence on the subject of pie. What can I say? No, I don’t dislike pie. But yes (oh yes), I do love this cake.
Pear Cake with Lemon and Rosemary
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan
Equipment: 8-inch springform pan
- 4 large pears, mixed varieties
- ½ cup (1 stick) butter
- 1 sprig rosemary
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- ¾ teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs
- ¾ cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons brandy, fresh lemon juice or a combination
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest (from about 2 lemons)
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and generously butter it and the pan’s sides. Place on a baking sheet and set aside.
In a small skillet, melt the butter. Add the rosemary sprig and cook very gently for about 5 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and set aside to cool.
Peel the pears, cut them in half lengthwise, and core. Cut into 1- to 1½-inch chunks. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until foamy. Add the sugar; whisk briefly. Whisk in the brandy and/or lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla. Strain the rosemary from the melted butter and mince finely. Stir ¼ teaspoon minced rosemary into the batter.
Switch to a spatula and fold half the flour mixture into the batter. Add half the butter, followed by the remaining flour and butter, stirring gently after each addition. Fold in the chopped pears. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and place in the oven. Bake 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until deep golden on top.
Remove from oven and allow to cool about 10 minutes. Run a slim knife around the inside edge of the pan, then undo the springform latch, checking to make sure that no batter is stuck to the pan before removing it completely. Allow cake to cool on pan bottom placed on a rack.
To store: Because this cake is so moist, do not cover leftovers; if desired, press a piece of parchment paper against the cut edges to keep fresh.