Early in our relationship, Dan and I went to an Italian restaurant in Park Slope, where we now live. It is called Al Di La, and is everything you'd want in a neighborhood place—a cozy and romantic dining room with delicious, rustic Northern Italian food. The menu doesn't change very often, but that is more of a testament to how well-loved it is, rather than a stagnant kitchen. People come from Park Slope and beyond for the bright pink beet ravioli, the caper-studded beef carpaccio, and the most incredible lamb ragu over papardelle. And the desserts—oh, the desserts. My favorite dessert—possibly my favorite dessert ever—is the torta di pere, chocolate-pear cake. It tastes a little like a pear-studded blondie, but airier and moister. After the first time I ordered it, I knew, like lots of other diners, I'd have come back to the restaurant again and again just to get my fix. Or so I thought.
The problem with Al Di La? It is always packed, and the owners don't take reservations so it's very hard to get in. And it's only gotten harder over the years. People line up at 5:00 PM and the crowds don't slow down until closing time. The place that I thought could be our place is clearly everyone's place, and we've sort of given up on it after too many nights of standing in the restaurant's doorway hopefully, only to be told there is a two-hour wait.
So when Smitten Kitchen posted the recipe for the chocolate-pear cake, I was stunned. THE torta di pere? How did she get it? I thought that the recipe would change my life and I'd make the cake all the time, but like going to the restaurant, I filed it away and forgot about it. Happily, when searching for a dessert for my Italian-y dinner party the other week, I started thinking about Al Di La and the cake came back to me in a flash, so much so that I exclaimed, "Oh!"
Which is what my friends exclaimed when they ate it. "Oh!" and "Mmm!" and "This is the best dessert you've ever made." All of which is to say it is exactly like the restaurant's version, an accomplishment I am way prouder of than I should be.
Torta di pere
The secret ingredients in this cake are brown butter and whole eggs that are beaten to the point of forming stiff peaks. When combined, they give the cake its springy texture and subtle nutty flavor--something I couldn't put my finger on when I ate it in the restaurant. Smitten Kitchen served this cake with whipped cream with a hint of amaretto, so of course I copied that too, using almond extract. And it was exactly the right decision.
(Makes one 9-inch cake, which serves about eight people)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, at room-temperature
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 pears, peeled, in a small dice (I used anjou)
3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chunks (I used chocolate chips)
Lightly whipped cream with a touch of almond extract, optional (but recommended)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust with breadcrumbs (I cheated and used flour), set aside. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together, set aside.
Using a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the eggs on high speed until pale and very thick. (SK says in a professional Kitchen Aid, it takes at least five minutes; on a home machine, it will take nine minutes to get sufficient volume. It took me about ten minutes using a hand mixer, but I beat the eggs a little longer to be extra-safe.)
While the eggs are whipping, brown the butter. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan (because it will foam a lot) and cook it until the butter browns and smells nutty (about 6 to 8 minutes). It helps to frequently scrape the solids off the bottom of the pan in the last couple minutes to ensure even browning. Remove from the flame but keep in a warm spot.
Add the sugar to the eggs and whip a few minutes more. Just as the egg-sugar mixture is starting to lose volume, turn the mixture down to stir, and add the flour mixture and brown butter. Add one third of the flour mixture, then half of the butter, a third of the flour, the remaining butter, and the rest of flour. Whisk until just barely combined — no more than a minute from when the flour is first added — and then use a spatula to gently fold the batter until the ingredients are combined. It is very important not to over-whisk or fold the batter or it will lose volume.
Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle the pear and chocolate chunks over the top, and bake until the cake is golden brown and springs back to the touch, about 40 to 50 minutes, or a tester comes out clean. (Try this a few times to make sure you're not hitting a pocket of pear.) Serve with whipped cream.