PEAR & CHESTNUT CAKE
by Gina Depalma
The DOC area of Roero in Piemonte is nestled between Asti and Alba, a mix of dense woods and gently rolling hills. In addition to the precious truffles, prized hazelnuts and fantastic wines produced in the Roero are the lovely chestnuts and sweet, juicy pears that are harvested every fall. Marroni are the large, plump, round variety of chestnut grown here, and local specialties featuring chestnut flour, candied chestnuts, and chestnut honey are highlighted at many of the annual autumn sagre, or festivals held in southern Piemont, in October and November, when the aroma of roasting chestnuts fills the air.
The Madernassa is the type of pear grown in Roero, a unique and ancient variety that is still cultivated today without the use of pesticides. Madernassa pears are very long and quite narrow, green at the top, with a blush of red on the rounder bottom. The favorite way to enjoy these pears are to poach them in the local Roero wines, either the Rosso, made primarily from the Nebbiolo varietal, or in the dry, white, Arneis di Roero, which is delicately perfumed with the flavor pears, peaches and apples.
Pears and chestnuts come together beautifully in this moist cake made with chestnut flour and studded with slices of caramelized pear, my version of a torta di marroni, or chestnut cake that you might find in a local pasticceria in any one of the small towns that dot the landscape of the Roero. I like to use a bit of pureed prunes for added flavor and sweetness. This dessert is heavenly on a chilly fall night!
Preheat the oven to 325°F degrees. Grease and line a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment or wax paper.
Place the chopped prunes, water and liquor of choice in a small saucepan and set over heat until liquid begins to boil. Remove from heat and allow the prunes to plump and soften. Peel, halve and core the pears and set aside. Have the pears, butter, water ready near the stove.
Heat a 10-inch sauté pan over medium high heat until the pan is very hot. Sprinkle in the sugar in an even layer and allow the sugar to slowly melt, and liquefy. Watch carefully as the sugar begins to carmelize. When a rich brown color has been reached, add the butter and shake the pan. The caramel will bubble and the butter will melt and emulsify. Lower the heat slightly so as not to burn the caramel. Add the water, shaking the pan, then add the pears.
Caramelize the pears by turning them in the caramel sauce several times. The sauce should be simmering. Cook the pears for several minutes, turning them often, until they soften. If at any time the sauce begins to evaporate, add a bit more water. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool while you prepare the cake batter.
In a bowl, combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy using the paddle attachment. Beat in egg and yolk, one at a time, scraping down the sides in between. Add brandy and vanilla.
Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients and beat to incorporate them. Add half of the milk, and beat well, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add another 1/3 of the dry ingredients, beating to incorporate them, followed by the rest of the milk. Scrape down the sides and beat in the remaining dry ingredients. Beat in the chopped prunes.
Spread the batter into the prepared cake pan. Place the caramelized pear halves in a circular fan shape, with one half placed in the middle. Sprinkle the top of the cake with sugar in the raw.
Bake the cake 35 to 40 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the cake to a rack to cool, then place on a serving plate. Serve the cake with a dollop of mascarpone, or whipped cream, or vanilla gelato.