Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Piedmontese Nut Cake with Wine-Poached Pears

The beginning of fall feels like a series of doors closing: no more lazy sunlit evenings, no more bicycling without gloves, no more waking up to a warm house. I just taught a visiting European friend the phrase "picnic weather," only to have to cancel tonight's picnic after the rain started. The Portland skies have been dark lately, and the adjustment can be pretty rough. But after mourning summer's departure, you remember the lovely things about fall. Toasty fireplaces, for one. And this cake.

This is no springtime dessert. The cake is rich with ground nuts, and topped with boozy poached pears. The recipe was originally adapted by the lovely Traveler's Lunchbox blog, which took Italy's Piedmont tradition of poached pears and nut-rich cakes, and combined them into one dessert. I'm a big fan of such one-pan ventures. The cake is buttery and sweet, and nubby with ground nuts. But then it's topped with pears that have been poached in wine and sugar, and brushed with a syrup reduced from the same. I first made this last year, for no real occasion, and we felt sort of reckless with our good fortune as we cut thick slices to have for a snack.

Like the Plum Custard Tart, this is a dessert that ranks high on the prettiness scale. But unlike the tart, these jewel-like fruits aren't resting on a bed of trembling custard. They're on a much heartier landing pad of nut-filled cake. To fortify you for the cold autumn nights ahead.

Piedmontese Nut Cake with Wine-Poached Pears

adapted from The Traveler's Lunchbox's Piedmontese Hazelnut, Pear and Marsala Cake (I felt compelled to rename it, as my version was missing two of the three titular ingredients), initially adapted from the Piedmontese Hazelnut Cake in Michele Scicolone's 1,0000 Italian Recipes

If you're aching to make this cake, but your pears are a bit under-ripe, don't worry -- they'll soften in the poaching liquid, and will be tender and flavorful by the time they're out of the oven.

For the Pears:

2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup Marsala (or other sweet fortified wine, such as Port or Madeira)
1 cup water
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
5 medium pears, peeled, halved and cored

For the Cake:

1 1/2 cups finely ground hazelnuts (traditional) or almonds (also good)
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-inch pan (a springform is nice if you have it, but anything will work).

Combine the sugar, wines, water, vanilla and pears in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, and then reduce heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, until the pears just begin to get translucent, and are tender when pierced with a fork (about 30 minutes). Remove pears from the poaching liquid, and set aside to cool. Continue simmering the poaching liquid to reduce (more on that later).

In a large bowl, sift together the nut meal, flour, baking powder, and salt. If the nut meal isn't ground finely, you can either sift through a larger amount of nut meal to yield 1 1/2 finely-ground cups, or leave as is for a more rustic cake. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one by one, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla, mix well. Fold in the dry ingredient mixture, stirring until just combined. Spread the batter into the prepared pan. Place the poached pears, cut side down, on top of the cake in a pretty pattern. Bake until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes. Remove from the oven.

While the cake is baking, continue simmering the poaching liquid until it has reduced to about 1/2 cup (it will be thick and syrupy, and the color will have darkened). When the cake is out of the oven, brush it with this syrup, covering both the cake and the pears. Wait a moment for the syrup to be absorbed, and then repeat. Serve warm or at room temperature.


  1. Yum! I'm liking this trendy of boozy desserts!

  2. I have always wanted to go to Piedmont and awhile ago I even spent some time studying some recipe books from the area. This cake just brought me right back there. It looks delicious and even though I'm not a huge pear fan, I'd dig right in if you presented it to me!

  3. I'm not normally the hugest pear fan either -- why have a grainy pear when you can have a crisp apple? -- but this cake can win converts. And praise for an Italian dessert from someone with a site full of such fine Italian cooking? Grazie!