So, dear readers, as we breeze inexorably into the month of June and the blossom is in full swing on the trees and the hayfever is at full saturation point in the air and the hosepipes are at full prohibition point on the lawns, I bring you the most Christmassy, un-summery cake ever.
Would you believe me if I told you that the fresh cranberries used to top this cake have been in my fridge since November?
Probably not. Neither would I if I had told myself back then when I stashed them away for future baking. But then I discovered that cranberries have an amazingly long shelf life, largely because they have a low moisture content and a sort of waxy coating on their skins. I read that they'd last a couple of months; I didn't expect them to last nearly six.
The reason I kept some back after Christmas is mainly because I feel the humble cranberry is a bit overlooked. In fact, I feel really sorry for it. It gets its tiny little moment in the limelight, the month before Christmas where everyone feels the compulsion to make a huge batch of cranberry sauce even though no one really eats it and it doesn't go particularly well with turkey, and then it's relegated to the depths of beyond for the next year.
Why do we consign cranberries to Christmas in this country?
They have so much potential. I have the wonderful food writer Diana Henry to thank for this; in her book 'Roast Figs, Sugar Snow' she extols the virtues and versatility of cranberries, pointing out that they can be used in a wide variety of dishes; to add sharpness to a plate of meatballs or venison; to serve in a compote spooned over a slab of ginger cake; to stir through a rice salad with duck. It was her gorgeous recipes and beautiful prose that awoke me to the potential of cranberries outside the Christmas table, and that is why I tucked them away in my fridge for all those months.
She was also the reason for this cranberry and wild rice duck salad, for a lovely dinner I made involving chicken breasts stuffed with cream cheese, dried cranberries and pecans, and for my morning porridge peppered with chunks of juicy pear and gem-like dried cranberries. I'm a cranberry fiend, and I wanted to use my stash in the fridge for something really special.
I finally got round to using them this week. I've no idea why it's taken me so long...I guess there have always been higher-priority desserts on the cards.
But now that I've made this once, it's going on the 'high priority' list.
The idea for a pear, pecan and cranberry upside-down cake came from 'Roast Figs, Sugar Snow'. I'd been thinking of a cranberry upside-down cake anyway, but the slight problem with baking with cranberries is that they are extremely sour. Even if your cake batter is quite sweet, those little pockets of mouth-puckering tartness are not to everyone's taste. By toning them down a little using sugary pears and toasty pecans, you end up with a much more pleasant combination, both in terms of texture and flavour. The pears turn soft and grainy; the nuts are crunchy and earthy; the cranberries give a moreish little burst of flavour.
I love the magic of upside-down cakes and tarte tatins.
The way the fruity caramel seeps into the cake or pastry. The moment of anticipation as you flip it over and unveil it. The burnished, caramelly edges of the fruit where they've been in contact with the hot tin or pan.
You know what I love even more than that? Caramelised pears. Frying pears in a bubbling mixture of dark, ambrosial brown sugar and butter is one of the most wonderful things to spend your morning, afternoon or evening doing. The smell is intoxicating. The sight of the golden liquor is ravishing. I love the way they soften from hard, glassy, white shards into tender, slippery, curling strands of burnished sumptuousness while perfuming your kitchen with their buttery fragrance.
On the top of this cake, they melt down into sweet morsels that infuse the batter with their juice. They provide a mellow sugariness to contrast with the tart cranberries. Top it all off (literally) with the irresistible sweet, nutty flavour of pecans, and you have an addictive and delicious combination.
The cake batter for this is a healthier version of Diana's. Don't be put off. It's my standard cake batter recipe for any cake topped with fruit, and you'd never believe it only uses a fraction of the butter of normal cakes. This is down to the genius of adding yoghurt, which keeps the cake really moist and flavourful while negating the need for huge amounts of butter.
The result is a dense, vanilla-scented, moist crumb that pairs beautifully with the rich fruity topping. Seriously, it's incredible. This would work with any fruit, really, but the pear-pecan-cranberry trio is something worth trying, particularly as it looks very pretty. The cake is excellent served warm from the oven with lots of cold vanilla ice cream, but is also good just as it is with a big cup of tea. In fact, I think it's better after a day or so, when the cake becomes even more moist and the fruit tastes sweeter.
This would be the perfect cake for winter, tasting as festive and wonderful as it looks. If you're not like me and don't obsessively hoard seasonal fruits, then you could make it year-round using raspberries, blueberries, blackberries or even raisins instead of the cranberries, or use dried cranberries, or omit them altogether or change the fruit. It's up to you. Follow this basic template and you'll end up with a hugely rewarding piece of cake.
Caramelised pear, pecan and cranberry upside-down cake (serves 6-8):
(Inspired by 'Roast Figs, Sugar Snow' by Diana Henry)
- 40g butter
- 70g brown sugar
- 4 medium pears (Conference work best)
- 60g pecan nuts
- 150g fresh cranberries
- 150g light brown sugar
- 60g soft butter
- 2 eggs
- 200g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Around 200ml plain yoghurt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
Heat the 40g butter and 70g brown sugar sugar together in a non-stick frying pan. Peel and core the pears, then cut into slices around 1cm thick. Add to the butter and sugar and cook over a medium heat until the pears soften and release some of their juice. Turn the heat up and caramelise them briefly so they are golden brown and sticky. Mix in the cranberries and pecans and turn off the heat.
Grease and line a 23cm springform cake tin, then tip the fruit mixture into the bottom. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/170C fan oven.
In a large bowl, mix together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer/hand whisk. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat thoroughly until the mixture is pale and creamy. Sift in the flour and baking powder, then fold in the vanilla, salt and yoghurt - just enough to make a smooth batter (you might not need it all, or you might need a bit more, depending on how thick your yoghurt is).
Pour this mixture onto the fruit in the tin, then level and bake for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown and the centre springs back when you press it. Allow to cool for 5 minutes in the tin, then run a knife round the edge, put a plate over the top and invert the cake onto the plate (don't let it cool too much before you do this, or the caramel will stick to the tin).
Serve warm with ice cream, or cold for afternoon tea.