Monday, July 27, 2009

chocolate-pear cake, a triumph

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.


Nicole @ Sprinkle with Salt said...

Wow. I can't wait to try this!

Pink of Perfection said...

Oh, heaven! Is there anything better than being able to recreate your favorite thing from a restaurant? Suddenly, you have no need for sharing the overly crowded banquette with meanies and their big purses! Now if I could just figure out how to make the pumpkin cake they served at Little D. A project for the fall...

Daniel said...

We didn't want it to come to this, Al di La. But you left us no choice with your two hour waits. Now we hardly think of you at all anymore.

But Little D, we still pine for you.

Lisa said...

Nicole: Thanks! Let me know how it goes.

POP: It is a really triumphant feeling! I must have missed the pumpkin cake at Little D's--but I want to recreate their Boca Negra for sure.

Daniel: Yeah, I really miss Little D.

Mischa said...

This looks AMAZING! Thanks for the detailed instructions.
Just to clarify, when you were whipping the eggs, you whipped them whole (i.e. no separation of yolks and whites) right?
It's time to bake! :)

Lyndsee said...

I made this last night, and it was amazing! Unfortunately we didn't have any whipped cream, but it was still awesome. I might have cut back on the pear a tiny bit, although I am not always a huge cooked fruit fan to begin with. I will definitely be making this again, like probably tomorrow.

Lisa said...

Mischa: Hi! Yes, keep them whole. That's the trick about this cake, that you beat whole eggs until they are very frothy, as you would with egg whites. Let me know how it goes!

Lyndsee: So glad you liked it! Lots of people have cooked fruit issues, so yeah, I can see cutting back on the pear. But you want a little bit in there for flavor. Thanks for commenting!

Mischa said...

I baked it Monday and it turned out exactly as you described. I was very happy with the results (although very worried during the baking because the center of took much longer than the sides to get done, total oven time about 40 minutes). Your directions about beating the eggs on high speed for 10-12 minutes was spot on! The butter browned faster though despite a low flame. I would say one should start being careful at the four minute mark. I didn't include the very dark brown bits into the batter (should I have?). It smelled SO GOOD.
The cake tasted like any great restaurant dessert especially with the whipped cream topping. The texture of the cake is amazing, not too dense but still moist and rich in flavor. The pears are sweet and juicy and the chocolate just seals the deal. Thanks SO much for the great recipe! I'm glad this is now part of my repertoire!

Lisa said...

Mischa: Thank you so much for reporting back! I love when people do that. So glad the cake turned out for you--isn't it delicious? I need to make it again myself! Kudos to Smitten Kitchen for finding it and for the very detailed instructions.

blueeyedfreckle said...

I needed to make something delicious last night for a get together with my friends. so the first place I thought to look was YOUR site. I was deciding btwn the strawberry yogurt cake and this one, and went with this one.

OH. MY. GOSH!!!! It was soooo good and such a hit! thank you Lisa!


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