This Torino-born cake is simple to make, but its success is based entirely on the quality of the hazelnuts and the pears. I love Comice pears for their complex flavor and juicy texture, and because they hold their shape. Stout, plump and available in red and green hues, the Comice variety is often referred to as the "Christmas pear," which is exactly why I turn to such a dessert during the holidays.
I like to make this cake first thing on Christmas morning before anyone in the house is awake. To me, there's something about baking in a springform pan and achieving tall, exposed sides of the cake that creates a magnificence you can't quite get from a tart or galette. In concept, this recipe is similar to a puff pastry pear tart tatin (which would be a fantastic alternative if you are pressed for time). However, if you have a few extra minutes to whip up the batter, all you need to do is layer the pears and wait for the magic to happen in the oven.
Leftover pear slices become a perfect snack while waiting for the cake to bake. Pair with a soft cheese like fontina or Brie to experience the sublime excellence of this festive fruit that is only available through January. Though it's almost impossible to resist straight out of the oven, my pear and hazelnut cake makes for an absolutely stunning table display if you can wait to serve it after dinner.
Pear and Hazelnut Cake
Serves 8 to 10
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely ground fresh breadcrumbs
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar, plus 1/4 cup for the pears
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 tablespoons whole milk
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup ground hazelnuts, plus 1/4 cup for serving
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1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 ripe Comice pears
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Brush the sides and the bottom of a 3-inch-deep 9-inch springform pan with olive oil, and dust with fresh bread crumbs.
In a large bowl, use a handheld electric mixer on medium-low to cream together the butter, 1 1/4 cups of the sugar, the vanilla, and the milk until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until well incorporated.
In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, 1/4 cup of the hazelnuts, the baking powder, the salt, and the cinnamon. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and mix with a wooden spoon for 1 minute, until combined. Set the batter aside.
Peel and core the pears, and slice each one into 8 even slices. Place the pears in a bowl, and toss with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and the lemon zest and juice.
Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan. Arrange the pear slices on top of the batter, forming two concentric circles with 6 slices on the inside circle and 18 on the outside, with the stem end of each piece pointing toward the center. (They will sink a bit). Place the pan in the oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours or until the cake is golden brown on top and toothpick inserted toward the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes.
Release the springform sides and place the cake on a platter. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the remaining 1/4 cup ground hazelnuts, dust with the confectioners' sugar, and cut into slices to serve.
(Mario Batali is the chef behind 25 restaurants, including Eataly, Del Posto and his flagship Greenwich Village enoteca, Babbo.)