Pear and Hazelnut Cake

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I know, these next few weeks are supposed to be all about pies. But does the world really need another recipe for pumpkin or pecan pie? Don’t get me wrong, I love both of them, (especially cold out of the fridge the morning after Thanksgiving) but I thought it would be more fun to come up with a new take on fall flavors than trying to reinvent the proverbial Thanksgiving wheel. 

This Pear and Hazelnut Cake has been my little baking project this fall, and I’m really excited to share the final recipe with you. It’s a versatile cake that would be as welcome on a weeknight or Sunday afternoon as it would be at a dinner party or holiday table. The pears make for a dramatic presentation, but because this cake is baked “upside-down” and then flipped before serving, making that pretty pear pattern couldn’t be easier.

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Pear and hazelnuts go really well together- the flavors complement each other and neither one overpowers the other. And without the addition of traditional fall spices, which have a way of making everything taste the same (ahem, pumpkin spice) the pear and hazelnut flavors are really clear. The addition of browned butter to the cake adds another layer of nuttiness, and somehow the batter ends up tasting just like toasted marshmallows and hazelnuts. Mmm.

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I use Bosc pears because they have a beautiful long pear shape, and they don’t get as soft and juicy as other pears do when they’re ripe. This makes them less ideal for eating raw, but for perfect for baking. If the pears are rock hard at the store, I let them sit on the counter for a few days to ripen before using them. The pears go into the pan over a mixture of butter, dark brown sugar and maple syrup and are perfectly tender and subtly sweet when the cake comes out. 

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Now, I know not everyone hosts or attends the sort of Thanksgiving where non-traditional desserts are welcome, and I understand that. It’s the one time of year we fill a plate with four kinds of pie while explaining that this is the one time of year we get to eat these pies. It’s a great tradition. But I still think this cake would be a terrific  addition to any Thanksgiving dessert spread. And I can say from experience that it, too, is even better eaten out of the fridge the next morning…

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Pear and Hazelnut Cake

Ingredients

1 stick plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided, plus more for greasing the pan
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 ripe Bosc pears
1 cup raw hazelnuts, finely ground in a food processor
½ cup all purpose flour
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
unsweetened whipped cream, for serving (see note)

Directions

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper.

In a small sauté pan, heat the butter over medium-low heat and cook until golden brown flecks form all around the edges of the pan. Watch the butter carefully because it will burn quickly! Remove the pan from the heat and using a rubber spatula, scrape the browned butter into a small bowl to cool, making sure to scrape up all the brown bits.

In a small bowl combine the remaining 3 tablespoons butter, maple syrup, and brown sugar and stir to combine. Using a rubber spatula, spread the mixture evenly over the bottom of the pan. Cut pears in half through the stem. Trim the stems and carefully core the pears with a melon baller or teaspoon. Cut two 1/2-inch thick slices (lengthwise) from each half so you end up with 4 slices from each pear. Artfully arrange the pears, cut sides down, on top of the butter mixture.

In a small bowl, combine the ground hazelnuts, flour and salt, and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (hand mixer works, too!), beat the egg whites and granulated sugar until the egg whites form firm peaks. Using a rubber spatula, very gently fold in the browned butter, then the nut/flour mixture, until just combined. Transfer the batter to the pan, and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the cake is lightly browned around the edges and a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Cool for five minutes and then carefully invert onto a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature with unsweetened whipped cream.

Note: To make unsweetened whipped cream, whip 1 cup cold heavy cream with 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment or in large mixing bowl using a hand mixer. Whip until just firm and serve immediately.


Sweet Italian Sausages with Braised White Beans and Kale

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Last month, Joe and I spent a week in Puglia, Italy, the region on the heel of Italy’s “boot.” We ate countless bowls of seafood pasta, almost a whole wheel of the local, firm ricotta, and tried so many varieties of pasticiotto, Puglia’s famous cream-filled cakes, that I went through serious withdrawal when we got home. But for me, one of the most memorable things we ate on the trip was actually in Rome, where we spent a weekend before flying home.

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At Armando Al Pantheon, a restaurant a stone’s throw from the Pantheon that serves traditional Roman cuisine, we ordered the special of the day: braised white beans with sausages. (Along with lots of other things, as it was our last weekend in Italy). Even after all the burrata and cacio e pepe we ate, there was something about this dish in particular I found so satisfying and comforting.

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It was incredibly simple- white beans braised with tomatoes and herbs and served with roasted sausages- but it had so much flavor. It was the kind of thing I could see myself eating fall and winter long, with a big glass of wine and some crusty bread to mop it all up. I couldn’t wait to play around with this idea at home to see if I could come up with my own version.

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One thing I knew from the start is that I wanted to try using canned beans. Cooking the beans from scratch would be more authentic, but there’s no way I am ever going to remember to soak beans overnight. It’s just not happening. I also wanted the dish to be quick, easy, and able to be made last-minute on a weeknight.

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This recipe calls for browning the sausages in a Dutch oven, and then finishing them in the oven. I use the some of fat from the sausage to cook the onions and garlic, which I braise along with the beans, Tuscan kale (my own sneaky addition of something fresh and green), tomatoes, chicken stock, white wine and a big sprig of rosemary. If you want to go lighter, you can make this with chicken or turkey sausage. Just be sure if you’re using chicken sausage that you find a butcher that sells them uncooked. You don’t want the precooked, flavored chicken sausages for this recipe.

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This is the dinner to make when you feel like winding down and stirring something simple and comforting after a long day. The recipe calls for a half cup of white wine, so you might as well just finish the bottle, right?

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Sweet Italian Sausage with Braised White Beans and Kale


Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausages
  • 1 Vidalia onion, cut in half through the stem and thinly sliced crosswise
  • 3 small garlic cloves, smashed
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 2 (15.5-ounce cans) cannellini beans, such as Goya, drained and rinsed
  • 3 cups chopped Tuscan kale, lightly packed (about 1 small bunch), see note
  • 1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
  • 1 ½ cups low-sodium chicken stock, such as College Inn
  • 1 fresh rosemary sprig
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • freshly ground Parmesan cheese, for serving
  • rustic country bread, for serving

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium, heavy pot or Dutch oven. Add the sausages and cook for 10 minutes, turning occasionally to brown them evenly. Transfer to a sheet pan and roast for 10-15 minutes, depending of the size of the sausages, until cooked through and no longer pink inside. Set aside.

Meanwhile, drain any excess fat from the pot, leaving only a thin coating of oil on the bottom. (Or, if the pot looks dry, add a splash of olive oil.) Add the onions and garlic and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until the onions are browned and translucent. Add the wine and cook until reduced by half. Add the beans, kale, tomatoes, chicken stock, rosemary, and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and cook at a full simmer for 35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Discard the rosemary sprig and any large pieces of garlic. Using the back of a wooden spoon, press of some of the beans against the side of the pot to lightly mash them. Do this about 4 or 5 times until the sauce has thickened slightly. Add ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper, stir to combine, and then place the cooked sausages on top of the beans. Simmer for 3 more minutes, until the sausages are warmed through.

To serve, spoon some of the beans into the bottom of a shallow bowl or deep plate. Top with a sausage and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Serve hot with bread on the side.

Note: To remove kale leaves from the stems, lay the leaves flat on a cutting board and cut down both sides of the center rib, discarding the rib.