Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An abiding love

November is here. The glorious, crisp, bright, colorful fall days are fading away, replaced by darkness at 5:20 p.m. and dustings of snow on the rooftop and -- gasp -- icicles on the railroad underpass near our house. While all that foretells blustery, miserable days ahead, it also means that Thanksgiving is almost here! Thanksgiving, my very favorite holiday.

I love Thanksgiving because it offers all the togetherness and warmth (and wonderful food!) of Christmas without the distraction and stress of gift-buying. No trips to the mall, no last-minute wrapping. Just a relaxing day off with a bounty of comfort foods and a license to have as many pieces of pie as you'd like. And then, and then! You are expected to nap. Those Pilgrims and Native Americans really knew what they were doing.

In honor of this most perfect holiday, for the rest of the month I'll be sharing some of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes -- both those that were a part of my family's Thanksgivings when I was growing up and those that I've come across since I, as a actual adult, have been preparing and hosting Thanksgiving dinners in our home. The food we serve at holidays is often deeply personal, imbued with nostalgia and comfort and happy memories. I hope you will welcome some of my favorites into your home, where they might take a place among your own treasured recipes.

Today: dark gingerbread pear cake. I have an abiding love for gingerbread. I find it to be one of the most divine holiday flavors out there. Its fragrant spice has an amazing way of warming your entire body, making it the single best dessert flavor to enjoy outside on a fall day, whether you're raking leaves, playing fetch with the pup, hiking under a cool blue sky or taking a break from a touch football game. Gingerbread also plays well with the other big flavors of Thanksgiving, both sweet and savory: pumpkin, apple, allspice, cranberry, caramelized onion, butter, clove. Though the gingerbread house and the gingerbread man are more reminiscent of Christmas, the pure flavor of gingerbread is in my opinion much better suited to Thanksgiving.

Next to apples, winter pears are what I think of when I think of holiday fruit. A single Bosc pear graces this cake, its subtle flavor mingling nicely with the gingerbread's assertive spice. The cake is not overly sweet, which puts it in the category of Desserts My Father Will Enjoy. And it's dynamite when paired with a scoop of homemade cinnamon ice cream. One last thing: this cake is easy to make. E-A-S-Y. Which any cook can appreciate on Thanksgiving, when you've got a turkey to baste and potatoes to mash and wine glasses to fill.

If you're anything like me, pecan and pumpkin pies will star in your dessert spread this Thanksgiving. If I might humbly suggest, make some room for a dark gingerbread pear cake, too. Of all days, the last Thursday in November is the one where it's acceptable to eat multiple pieces of pie and a piece of cake. Seize a variety of baked goods.

Then, go take a nap.


Adapted from "Gourmet" magazine

I am a big fan of buying whole spices when possible, toasting them in a dry skillet over low heat and then grinding them myself. For this recipe, I'd suggest you do just that for the allspice.

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. ground cinnamon (I like Ceylon)
1/8 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. kosher salt
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter
1/4 c. water
1/2 c. packed dark brown sugar
1/2 c. molasses (NOT robust or blackstrap)
3 large eggs
1/4 c. grated peeled ginger
1 Bosc pear

Using a microplane grater, grate the peeled ginger into a fine puree. Make sure to discard any big or fibrous pieces of ginger. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and place the rack in the middle of the oven. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan, knocking out excess flour. (Or use one of my favorite shortcuts: Pam with flour.)

Whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice and salt. In the microwave or in a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and water together.

In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the dark brown sugar and the molasses until well combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well to incorporate each one. Reduce to low speed and add the flour mixture; mix until just combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the butter mixture and the ginger, beating until just smooth. Pour into the prepared pan.

Peel the pear and cut into 3/4-inch pieces. Scatter the pieces over the batter. Bake until a toothpick or skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes. Cool slightly and serve. (I prefer to serve the cake upside-down, as I like the look of the pears studded throughout.)

Makes one 9-inch cake.

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