COOKING LOCAL Masala Chai Spiced Pear Upside Down Cake

October 28, 2011


spiced pear upside down cake



    Welcome back to the kitchen.

Recently we’ve done several autumn meals like soups, stews, and roasts. As we move through these colder

months, we will have plenty more opportunities for this type of warming, comforting



    But this week I want to take a turn from savory to sweet. If you have

kids, or heck, if you live in any kind of neighborhood with kids, you probably already or soon will have a house

full of candy. Yes, it is Halloween season.


    Now, Halloween is one of my very

favorite holidays. The thrill of dressing up as someone or something else, the mystery and mischief, is an ancient

human joy. Some people think Halloween is just for young children, and that we can somehow get too old to enjoy

playing dress up. I happen to strongly disagree. Of course, the Halloween’s of my youth are still some of my

strongest and best fall memories.


    I grew up in a small town, and some of the

best trick or treating streets were pretty far apart. Most kids had to choose between the full size candy bars

handed out at the fire station and the street with not one but three full on haunted houses. But not me and my

brother; we knocked every single door we could find, demanding sugary tribute.



 I remember my father being a Halloween champion. None of this home by dark nonsense. He would patiently take

us down back streets and alleys in search of any house that might still have its porch light on. We could trick or

treat as long and as a late as we could stand, until we each had a pillowcase bursting with



    One year my younger brother exhibited a disturbing amount of self

control, and saved nearly every single piece of Halloween candy, refusing to diminish his treasure trove by eating

it. He soon realized that a couple days after any given holiday, all that seasonal candy goes on sale for 75% off.

Thus began an epic edible collection. He began spending most of his allowance money on this discount candy,

hoarding it for over a year in a large camp trunk.


    He was a king among his

peers when he finally cracked the seal on that trunk and opened up the candy coffers. Ahh, the ecstasy and the

agony I witnessed, in relatively quick succession, as those kids gorged on stale candy, felt the rush and the

high, then inevitably came down to exhaustion and belly aches and rolled among the wrappers strewn across our

living room carpet.


    For me, one of the melancholy parts of growing up is

that candy has lost much of its mystique. It used to take nothing more than a laffy taffy or fun dip to make my

whole Saturday. But nowadays when I do give in to temptation and revisit the candies of my youth, I find myself

disappointed. I guess corn syrup just doesn’t give the rush it used to.



 Actually, this change of taste is a good thing. I have moved away from strange artificial flavors and garish

artificial colors. It isn’t the candy itself that I miss; it’s the simple joy it brought to my early

years. But now, as an adult, I can get much more culinary pleasure from something I make for



    So this week, instead of trying to make some use of leftover mass

produced junk candy, I want to offer a dessert treat that makes use of a great local ingredient, and can appeal to

a more adult sweet tooth. I’m going to modify the classic pineapple upside down cake to use our fabulous

local pears instead, and I’m going to take it to the next level by including exotic masala chai spices. By

the way, if you’ll allow me to nerd out for a moment here, chai just means tea, so to describe what we know

as chai you add masala, which actually just means spice blend, in this case ginger, cardamom, and others. So

“chai tea” is redundant and somewhat meaningless. Ok, back to the task at



    Upside down cakes start with some caramel in the bottom of the pan,

which will become a delicious glaze on the top of the cake when we flip it over to serve. Caramels can be pretty

tricky and finicky, but for this baked version we don’t have to worry as much and won’t need to use a

candy thermometer. And the rest of the cake is pretty simple as well, so let’s get started!


    For our Masala Chai Spiced Pear Upside Down Cake, we’ll



    -9 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided, plus more for

greasing the pan


    -3/4 cup plus 3 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose



    -3 Tbsp course yellow cornmeal or polenta (will give the cake some

great texture)


    -1½ tsp baking powder



 -¼ tsp kosher salt (this means granulated salt, all salt is technically kosher. Granulated salt was

used for “koshering” meats by drawing out blood)


    -1 cup sugar,



    -2-3 medium pears (about 1 pound)



 -1 tsp vanilla (please use the real stuff extract is for emergencies only)



 -1 Tbsp fresh grated ginger (you can substitute powdered ginger, but I don’t really like that stuff

too much)


    -1/2 tsp ground cardamom



small dash of ground cloves


    -small dash of



    -small dash of fresh ground black pepper (I know this sounds crazy,

but it is a key ingredient to the spicy taste of masala chai)


    -2 large eggs,



    -1/2 cup whole milk


    -1/2 cup

chopped pistachios (for topping)


    -freshly whipped cream (optional, for



    And you’ll want to use an 8 inch diameter round cake pan with

2 inch high sides, plus we’ll need some parchment paper to work with



 Start by preheating the oven to 350 degrees and moving the rack into the middle. Butter the cake pan and

line the bottom with a parchment paper round. Just trace the pan onto the paper, and then cut it out!


    Whisk the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and all the powdered spices

in a small bowl. Stir ¼ cup sugar and 2 Tbsp water in a small saucepan over a medium-low heat until the

sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the sugar syrup to a boil. Now for some reason most

recipes tell you not to stir the caramel while it is boiling. I am no pastry chef expert, so I don’t know

why this is, but I’m willing to follow directions on this one. I’m using a Bon Appetit recipe as a

basic guide, and then adding in the whole masala spice twist by trusting my



    So instead, occasionally swirl around the pan and brush the tuff

that sticks to the sides down with a damp pastry brush. Let the sugar simmer until it turns a dark amber color

(which is how you know it is caramelizing!). This should take about 8-10 minutes. Remove the sugar from the heat

and add 1 Tbsp of butter. The caramel is hot, so it will likely bubble vigorously, that is ok. Use a whisk and

stir vigorously until it is nice and smooth.


    Then pour the caramel into the

prepared cake pan, using a spatula to get it all out of the pot, and swirl the cake pan around so the whole bottom

is coated. Carefully sprinkle your fresh grated ginger all over the caramel, so it will candy while it bakes. I

say carefully because it tends to clump up. You may want to also add a pinch of fresh grated or powdered ginger to

the cake mix as well, so the flavor can be found throughout.


    Next, halve and

core the pears. Most recipes will tell you to peel them as well, but I think that is too picky, and I like the

texture of pear skin. Place the pears cut side down on your cutting board and slice them lengthwise as thin as

possible, about 1/8 inch thick or so. Layer these pear slices in the caramel, flat side down, overlapping them a

bit. Make a pretty pattern, because this will be the top of the cake and presentation can be part of the enjoyment

of food.


    Next mix the remaining ¾ cup sugar, 8 Tbsp room temperature

butter, and vanilla in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer (if you have one) beat on medium speed until light

and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Next add the egg yolks one at a time, beating to blend in between additions and

occasionally using a spatula to scrape the bowl as needed. Beat in the flour and spice mixture, but not all at

once. Add it maybe 1/3 at a time, and add half of the milk in between each addition of flour. So flour, milk,

flour, milk, flour with mixing in between.


    Clean and dry your beaters and

beat the separated egg whites in a medium bowl on low speed until they are nice and frothy. Then increase the

speed to medium and keep beating the whites until they form soft peaks. Using your spatula, fold in about ¼

of the egg whites ad a time into the cake batter. Don’t mix too much, just gently fold the egg whites



    Pour your masala chai spiced batter over the pears and caramel in the

pan, and smooth out the top (which will of course be the bottom). Bake the cake, rotating the pan about halfway

through, until the top is a nice golden brown and a tester (aka toothpick) comes out with a few small moist crumbs

attached. This should take about 1 hour. Let the pan cool, preferably on a wire cake rack, for about 30 minutes.

Then run a thin knife around the outside edge of the cake to release it from the pan. The parchment paper will

help release it from the bottom.


    When you are ready to serve the cake,

invert it onto a serving dish and peel off the parchment paper. Toast and finely chop the pistachio nuts and

sprinkle them over the ginger-caramel coated pear slices. Beautiful! Slice the cake and serve with whipped cream,

if desired.


    What a success! This cake looks great, smells awesome, and

tastes even better. The warm masala chai spices really compliment the pears, and the pistachios add another

crunchy Indian note. Of course, local apples would work just as well for this recipe, or you could use both. Nice

work everyone! I think we’ve found an adventurous dessert that is far superior to any Halloween candy.

I’d love to hear some fall treats you’ve been trying. Send me any questions or comments to Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-





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