“Pears are just so stinkin’ elegant.” –Half-Assed Kitchen
There are few things I love more than a perfectly-ripe pear—just soft enough that you could cut through the flesh with a spoon but not yet grainy or worse, mushy. But that moment seems to come and go so quickly. They sit there on the counter for a week after I buy them, flesh completely unyielding. If I dare to cut into one, it’s inevitably crisp as a good apple, but not nearly as sweet, not at all what I’m looking for in a pear. But then I look away for a minute—check my e-mail, perhaps, or dare to fall asleep. And that’s it, I miss their few perfect hours. Next thing I know, I have three pears dissolving in my fruit bowl, just barely held together by their increasingly bruised skin.
Usually, at that point, I cut them up and throw them in a basic muffin batter with some powdered ginger. The bits of pear give the muffins an almost custardy consistency, like little pear and ginger-flavored bread puddings. But I got a little busy this week and ended up leaving them to degrade beyond the point where I could even dice them up.
So I realized that if I was going to get any use out of them at all, it was most likely going to be as part of the moist ingredients, more like the mashed banana in banana bread than the blueberries in a muffin. But most of the recipes I found for baked goods using pears asked for them grated or chopped or shredded, all of which would have required a starting structural integrity far beyond what these pears had. I thought about just substituting them in a recipe for applesauce bread until I came across this recipe which called for canned pears, but involved pureeing them in a blender or food processor. It also called for almond meal, which reminded me of the traditional French tart with thin slices of pear layered over a frangipane base. And although I’m sometimes a little skeptical about advice and recipes I find on About.com, the ultimate selling point was the note about how the recipe had been improved by the addition of baking soda to promote browning and off-set the acidity of the lemon juice. What can I say, I’m a sucker for science.
Which is not to say that I think baking is an exact science. I didn’t have quite enough almonds, so I substituted some ground flax meal. Even after I’d cored and peeled my three sad pears and pared away some of the worst bruising, I had a lot more pear than the recipe called for, so I left out some of the lemon juice. I added a little almond extract, in part to compensate for using less almond meal and in part because I just really like almond extract. And I added just a little cinnamon and nutmeg—not as much as I would have wanted in an applesauce bread, but just enough to give it a hint of spice. I only had one 4×8 loaf pan, so I used a 9×13 for the second loaf and had to leave that one in a little longer. Next time, I’ll probably substitute brown sugar for some or all of the white sugar.
It turned out lovely—the delicate flavors of pear and almond melding with a little brightness from the lemon and warmth from the spices. It’s moist and tender, not too sweet for breakfast or afternoon tea, and definitely better the second (and third and fourth) day. Not, perhaps, quite as sublime or as elegant as a perfectly ripe pear, but not a bad result at all for pears so badly neglected.
Recipe, including explanations for some modifications in the method which are applicable to all quick breads and butter cakes, and pictures below the jump.
Recipe: Neglected Pear Bread (adapted from Linda Larsen)
- 3/4 c. butter, softened
- 1 1/4 c. sugar (white or brown or a combination)
- 3 eggs
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 t. baking powder
- 1 t. kosher salt
- 1/2 t. baking soda
- 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
- 1/4 t. ground nutmeg
- 3/4 cup ground almonds
- 3 large overripe pears, cored, peeled, and pureed (~20 oz.)
- 2 T. lemon juice
- 1 t. almond extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350 and butter and flour two loaf pans, ideally 8”x4”. Or whatever pan you plan on baking it in—you could use bigger loaf pans or make something more like a cake in one or two round, square, or rectangular pans, or use muffin tins.
2. Cream the butter and sugar until smooth and fluffy. Then, add the eggs one at a time.
The original recipe called for creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs together all at once, and you would probably get a decent result that way. Creaming the butter with the sugar first cuts through the fat and aerates it, making sure there aren’t any lumps of fat in the batter, which would melt and create large holes rather than an even crumb. The reason I suggest adding the eggs one at a time is that the goal is to create an emulsion, and just like in mayonnaise the emulsifier is the egg yolk. If you add all the eggs at once, you’ll have to beat the mixture longer to make it smooth, and there’s a greater danger of beating the egg whites into a partial meringue. Over-aerated egg whites will tend to migrate towards the top of the batter and create a slightly tougher, cracked crust that might have a tendency to break away from the rest of the cake. So, just like it’s better to add the fat to the egg yolks gradually in a mayonnaise, it’s better to add the egg to the fat gradually in a cake batter.
4. Whisk the ground almonds (or any nut or seed meal substitutions) with the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
5. Core, peel, and puree the pears. Add the lemon juice (will prevent oxidation/browning) and almond extract.
6. Add about a third of the flour to the creamed butter and sugar and mix until just combined, and then mix in about a third of the pear puree. Repeat until all of the fat, flour, and liquid are combined, mixing just until the batter is smooth and even.
The reason for alternating is to prevent the creation of gluten. Gluten forms the proteins in wheat flour combine with water. Mixing the flour with the butter mixture first coats the proteins in fat, which prevents gluten from forming. Doing as little mixing as possible also helps prevent gluten from forming (the whole purpose of kneading bread is to promote the formation of gluten), while still getting the batter evenly blended. If you added all the dry first, the batter would be too stiff and lumpy and you’d have to mix it so much, you would likely get gluten formation. If you added the liquid first, you wouldn’t get the protein coated in fat and would lose the smoothness and aeration in the emulsion. Alternating gives you the smoothest batter with the least gluten and most even leavening.
7. Pour into prepared pan(s) and bake until the bread is browning and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. In 4”x8” pans, the bread should take 45-55 minutes. In the 9×13 it took an additional 10 minutes. I’d start checking muffins at 25 minutes, and a cake pan at 35.
8. Cool in the pan(s) on wire racks for about 10 minutes, loosen from the edges with a knife and turn onto racks to cool completely. Nice warm, but better the next day. If you want to freeze it, wait until it’s entirely cooled and then triple-wrap in plastic.