It was last Sunday afternoon that I decided I must have a cake. I have written about this before: the gloomy Sunday slide into darkness that must be staved off by hook or by crook. I try to go out for a walk through the flower market on Columbia Road -- lined with shops selling furniture and trinkets from India and Thailand, each one a little bit less authentic than the last as they all carry the same bowls and incense holders; the high quality bespoke perfumier; the takeout window selling fried calamari and shrimp for 1.50 per bowl -- where the stall holders are almost Dickensian in their hawking and you can get bunches of flowers for practically nothing if you go at closing time. I try to take a bicycle ride in the country, where the promise of a pub lunch at the end of the road provides more encouragement for the cyclist than wanting to break a personal best. I go to the cinema, take in the latest exhibition at the National, poke around the tables of old prints and maps under Waterloo Bridge. Frequently these are all great outings and distractions from the impending work week. Sometimes, however, only a cake will do.
I read about this cake in Nigel Slater's column for the Observer a few weeks ago. His photo looked mouth-watering: soft pear, fragrant spices, sticky maple syrup. I could almost smell the aroma wafting from the pages of the magazine and filling the flat with warmth and comfort. (Emotional eating? Not me, nah...) It also looked fairly quick to make, and I thought I had all the ingredients on hand. I started to stir everything together, chopping up the pear and setting it on the stove to soften. Alas, my maple syrup was down to the last few sticky drops in the bottle, so I had to improvise by adding some dark brown sugar to the pears in lieu. I think the syrup would have been better, but my substitution was pretty good too. The pears didn't sink the way Nigel said, but made a good top layer. The cake was light and moist and redolent with pear and cinnamon. Warm out of the oven and served with a dollop of cream, nothing could have made life any better.
100g butter, softened
50g golden caster sugar
50g light muscovado sugar
150g plain flour
1 tsp. baking powder
50g ground almonds
3 large eggs
2 Tbsp. of milk
a couple of drops of vanilla extract
450g ripe pears
20g butter (I used hardly any)
a couple of pinches of cinnamon
3 Tbsp maple syrup
Nigel's instructions: Line the base of a deep 20cm baking tin with baking paper. Peel, core and chop the pears. The pieces should be quite small, about 1cm square. Put them into a shallow pan with the butter and cinnamon and let them soften for 10-12 minutes over a moderate heat, stirring from time to time so they do not burn. Pour in the maple syrup, let the mixture bubble up briefly then remove from the heat. The pears should continue cooking until they are sticky and deep golden. Set the oven at 180C.
Put the butter and sugars into the bowl of a food mixer and beat till pale and thick. They need to be the colour of milky coffee. Sieve the flour and baking powder together. (I don't normally suggest sieving flour but it is essential when you are incorporating baking powder, to ensure it is evenly distributed.) Add the almonds to the flour. Beat the eggs and milk in a small bowl with a fork then add to the butter and sugar mixture a little at a time, alternating with the flour and almonds. Stir in the vanilla extract.
Tip the mixture into the cake tin and smooth the top. Spoon the pears and any remaining syrup over the cake mixture. It will gradually sink on cooking to make a sticky layer further down.
Bake for 40 minutes or till golden and lightly firm. Serve warm, in thick slices with cream and a little more maple syrup.