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.


Savory Sweet Potato Crumble

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Growing up, we had sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallows more times than I can count. They were so decadent and over the top, and while I will never complain about having marshmallows for dinner (the goal was always to end up with as much of the topping and as few of the sweet potatoes on our plates as possible) the sweet potatoes got a little lost under all that sugar.

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I wanted to come up with a recipe for sweet potatoes that were every bit as decadent as the ones my brothers and I loved as kids, but with a more interesting and savory flavor profile for Thanksgiving. This Savory Sweet Potato Crumble hits all those marks – and let’s just say, it goes a lot better with turkey and gravy than marshmallows do.

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The crumble is made with walnuts, flour, fresh sage, brown sugar, Parmesan, a touch of heat from crushed pepper flakes, and of course, a generous amount of butter. It’s essentially a mash-up of Thanksgiving stuffing and a cheesy bread crumb topping. The potatoes underneath are creamy and studded with shallots caramelized in brown butter. Together, the crisp, savory crumble and slightly sweet, oniony potatoes are a winning pair, and you won’t believe how much the house smells like pure Thanksgiving when this dish is in the oven. It is the kind of smell Yankee Candles aspire to, and one that can only truly exist when a pan of something homemade and delicious is bubbling away in the oven.

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Whether you’re cooking for the big night next week, or are in need of a great last minute recipe for your Friendsgiving this weekend, these sweet potatoes are a real showstopper and definitely not your average side dish. (And they don’t just have to be for Thanksgiving, either!)

Savory Sweet Potato Crumble

Ingredients

  • 4 lbs sweet potatoes, scrubbed (6 medium)
  • 2 cups thinly sliced shallots (about 6 large)
  • 9 tbsp (1 stick + 1 tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
  • 4 tbsp light brown sugar, divided
  • 1 ½ cups finely chopped walnuts
  • ¾ cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh sage
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, divided
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • kosher salt

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Prick the potatoes several times with the tines of a fork, and bake for 1 hour, or until tender when tested with a knife. Set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, heat 4 tbsp of the butter in a medium (10 inch) sauté pan. Cook the butter over medium-low heat for three minutes, watching carefully, until brown flecks begin to form. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and add the shallots and 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar. Cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are tender and lightly browned.  Set aside.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine the walnuts, flour, Parmesan, sage, ¼ tsp red pepper flakes, 2 tbsp of the brown sugar, the remaining 5 tbsp butter, and 1 tsp salt. Using your fingers, pinch the mixture together to form large crumbles. Set aside.
  5. Peel the potatoes and place the flesh in a large mixing bowl, discarding the skin.  With a hand mixer on low speed or a potato masher, beat the potato mixture until smooth. Fold in the shallot mixture, the remaining tablespoon of brown sugar, the milk, ¼ tsp red pepper flakes and 2 tsp salt and combine.
  6. Transfer to a large, shallow baking dish.  Sprinkle the crumble mixture evenly over the potatoes and bake for 30 minutes, until the crumble is browned and the potatoes are heated through. Serve hot.