Almonds are a favorite of mine, no matter what the form. Whether it’s the sweet grainy Niederegger of Lubeck; soft indulgent amaretti of Italy or the crisp, salt sprinkled Grecian bar treats- I’m in. I get they can be divisive. Not everyone can take to the vaguely chemical woodiness of the nuts but whatever the form I remain a fan.
The lure of the almond nut has been such throughout time that people have even braved the high levels of hydrocyanic acid (HCN) of the wild, bitter almond to partake of it. Eating 50, or less, of the wild nut could potentially kill an adult with cyanide poisoning. Yet such was the allure of the nut that there are recipes from as far back as the 4th century as to how to neutralize the nutty nastiness within. St. Basil’s Hexaemeron, a Christian text from around the fourth century, contains the following guidance:
“Pierce an almond tree in the trunk near its roots, stick a fat plug of pine into its center and its almond seeds will undergo a remarkable change.”
It would seem that the introduction of a foreign botanical sample triggers a metabolic reaction which neutralizes the trees natural HCN production. I can’t testify to the effectiveness of this trick so in the words of all good PBS science programs- please don’t try this at home. But fear not folks, thanks to a genetic mutation thousands of years ago, modern domesticated sweet almonds are delicious and safe to eat. Unless consumed in massive quantities wherein constipation; Vitamin E overdose and weight gain (to name a few) might result. Everything in moderation as they say! Enough serious talk- you came here to bake (or accidentally got redirected here whilst researching Michael Keaton’s back catalogue).
In my view almonds and pears are one of those quintessentially ideal pairings for baking with. Maybe it’s because they both conjure up images of lush, bacchanal orchard woodlands in my head? Or maybe it’s some other more exacting culinary scientific reasoning unbeknownst to me. As it is, this time of year with bumper pear crops just begs for some autumnal-tinged goods to be baked in the kitchen. I love this recipe as it’s very much a no-fuss, rustic as you come affair. Cooking it in a skillet means no tin, springform or otherwise, to faff around with and presentation is as easy as pie (or should that be “cake” here? If you’re serving it warm why not go the whole way and slide a dollop of ice cream next to it on the plate? I can whole-heartedly recommend a French vanilla morphing into ribbons of silky, creaminess aside the fragrant cake.
I will hold my hands up and admit this – I also use the simple icing sugar dusting to hide the lack of my Instagram worthy pear pinwheel finish to the top of the cake. Of all the times I’ve made this cake I’ve only maneged the fluke of getting the pears to bake atop the surface twice. More often than not the pears sink that little bit and the batter rises that little bit so the pear slices get engulfed in the finish cake with morsels subtly peaking out here and there. Not that this is a bad thing I suppose? It could be argued that this adds an extra layer of interest with unexpected bites of fruitness throughout the cake. My point is don’t beat yourself up too much about not having the “pear wheel” on top or how it looks- this will taste seriously good anyway!
- 1 cup and 2 Tbspns (separated) salted butter, softened
- 1 1/2 cups fine sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup ground almonds
- 1 cup AP flour
- 1/4 tspn kosher salt
- 1 Tbspn ground ginger
- 1/3 cup milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 medium Bosc pears, cored and sliced into 8 vertically
- Icing sugar, to dust
- Preheat oven to 350°F, and place a 10″ cast iron skillet in to heat through
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar at medium speed until pale and fluffy, I usually do it for 6- 8 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl halfway through
- Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition
- In a small separate bowl, whisk together ground almonds, flour, salt and ground ginger. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture in thirds, alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition
- Beat in both the extracts until combined. Set mixture aside for now
- Carefully remove the hot skillet from oven and melt the 2 Tbspns butter on it, swirling to coat the bottom and sides
- Spoon batter into the heated, greased skillet and lightly spread to an even layer.
- Arrange pear slices in a pinwheel fashion over the top of the batter
- Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes.
- Remove and let the pan cool in pan for 10 minutes. Dust with icing sugar, and serve warm
- The finished cake can be sliced and stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days