The devilishly-handsome J had a birthday the other day. And since his new favourite cake flavour is pear and vanilla I thought this was a good enough time as any to give you the recipe I promised quite a while ago now. But the flavour of a prospective cake is only the first question to be answered, because as I’m sure you’ve all experienced, the appearance of a cake can influence the mood and emotions of a day just as much, if not more than the actual taste of said cake.
An artist's rendition of J. Note: not actually a baby
I had narrowed it down to two choices: a simple, elegant round cake dusted with icing sugar that was sure to give the day a feeling of special luxury and romance; or some super fun cupcakes decorated with characters from one of his most common evening pass-times – a rousing game of Super Street Fighter 4 (inspired by a photo I saw here) that would no doubt imbue the day with a sense of playfulness and excitement. But which to choose? I wanted this to be just right.
And then – an epiphany.
Romantic and fun aren’t mutually exclusive, and if you put a standard cake and cupcakes in a room together frosting-related violence is not inevitable.
So it was that I decided to have it both ways.
Now to the cooking!
Ingredients – makes one round cake approx. 10cm radius, and 17-ish cupcakes.
(all quantities are approximate)
5 regular sized eggs (each around 50g)
250g butter + a little extra for greasing
250g caster sugar + a little extra for greasing (trust me)
250g plain flour
1 ½ t baking powder (alternatively, use self-raising flour)
When you’re making something that has poached pears in it, often the first step is to poach the pears. When I originally made this recipe I poached my pears in a little water with a vanilla bean, but this time I decided to try out this paste I found (one vanilla bean costs like a bajillion dollars).
So you peel and chop your pears and pop them in a little simmaring water with a vanilla bean split down the middle or a teaspoon of this paste. The let them simmer away until they’re tender.
Scoop them out with a slotten spoon, chop them into chunks and set them aside to cool.
Now don’t get rid of your poaching liquid. There’s a lot of wonderful flavour in there. Instead, add about a tablespoon of sugar and keep it simmering away (remove the vanilla bean if you used one, but save it, we’ll use it again). As it reduces, this liquid will become a glorious golden pear and vanilla flavoured syrup.
Next, preheat your oven to 180oC if you haven’t already. I’m truly awful at remembering to preheat my oven – unless I’m reading a recipe which explicitly states “preheat your oven”, I’m liable to completely forget. So preheat your oven, everyone!
Then we’ll make what is essentially a basic vanilla pound cake. Cream the butter and sugar, then add in the eggs and either everything you can scrape out of the inside of your vanilla bean, or another teaspoon of paste (or, I suppose, a teaspoon and a half of vanilla essence). Mix it all up, then in goes the flour and baking powder, and there’s your batter!
Now gently fold in your cool pear bits. It doesn’t matter if they’re still a little warm, your batter will change texture a little but it won’t affect the finished cake.
All we have left is to grease the tins, cook, and ice. Grease everything with butter as you would normally, but then may I suggest a little something special for your cake tin? Take that bit of extra caster sugar and swish it around the tin until the buttered sides are completely covered. It’ll make a little bit of a crisp sweet crust around the outside.
Now plop the mix in the tins and bake until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Turn everything out to cool, then ice as you see fit.
For my simple sophisticated cake I just dusted it with icing sugar, and provided some of the poaching liquid syrup for drizzling.
And as for the cupcakes, since J doesn’t like the taste of fondant (crazy, I know), I topped them with smooth white frosting then essentially painted on designs with food colourings.
And the lesson learnt? As an adult, J can handle a complicated message and a few different emotions at once, as can I. In fact, invoking a few complimentary feelings with your food can make an experience all the deeper. So I must remember not to be afraid of complicated things, and situations where more than one thing is happening at once.