Season: Fall | Active Time: 30 minutes | Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes, plus time to cool | Difficulty: 2 (Easy)
My recipe development process typically starts with an ingredient or a flavor combination that sparks an idea. I loved the thought of pairing chestnuts and pears, both being somewhat mild and delicate in flavor. It’s very gratifying when, after much trial and error, the reality of the recipe matches the hope. This cake employs the power of a stand mixer to work cooked, peeled chestnuts (the kind out of a bag or jar) into a coarse paste that adds texture as well as a subtle, earthy flavor to the batter. It’s exactly what I envisioned, and exactly the kind of easy cake I want to make and eat come fall.
Special Equipment: 10-inch ovenproof skillet or 10-inch springform pan, ① stand mixer
Butter and sugar for the skillet or pan
3 firm-ripe pears, such as Bartlett or Comice (about 6 oz / 170g each)
1⅓ cups all-purpose flour (6.1 oz / 173g)
2 teaspoons baking powder (0.28 oz / 8g)
¼ teaspoon baking soda
10.4 ounces (300g) shelled whole roasted chestnuts (about 2 scant cups), from a bag or jar ②
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (0.11 oz / 3g)
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar (6.2 oz / 175g)
10 tablespoons unsalted butter (5 oz / 142g), at room temperature
2 large eggs (3.5 oz / 100g), at room temperature
½ cup crème fraîche (4.2 oz / 120g), at room temperature, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons fruit brandy (preferably pear) or dark rum (1 oz / 28g)
Preheat the oven and prepare the pan: Arrange an oven rack in the center position and preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter the bottom and sides of the ovenproof skillet or springform pan. Dust sugar all around the bottom and sides, then tap out the excess. Set aside.
Prepare the pears: Core and coarsely chop 1 pear and set it aside (you will fold this into the batter; you can peel the pear if you want, but it’s not necessary). Core the remaining 2 pears and slice them very thinly lengthwise (these are for the top of the cake). Set aside.
Mix the dry ingredients: In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and baking soda to combine. Set aside.
Break down the chestnuts: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the chestnuts, vanilla, salt, and ¾ cup of the sugar (5.3 oz / 150g) and beat on low speed until the chestnuts are broken up into smaller pieces. Increase the speed to medium and continue to beat until the chestnuts and sugar have formed a coarse paste with some small bits of chestnuts throughout, about 2 minutes.
Cream the butter and chestnut mixture: Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the butter, and beat on medium-high until the mixture is very light and fluffy, about 4 minutes.
Add the eggs: Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the sides after each addition, until the mixture is light and smooth.
Add the wet and dry ingredients: Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add half of the flour mixture. When you see the last trail of flour disappear into the batter, add the crème fraîche and mix just until incorporated. Add the remaining flour mixture, followed by the brandy, and continue to mix just until the batter is smooth and evenly combined.
Fold in the pear and fill the pan: Use a flexible spatula to fold the batter a few times, scraping the sides to incorporate any unmixed batter, then add the chopped pear and fold just until distributed throughout (gently, to avoid crushing the fruit). Scrape the batter into the prepared skillet or pan and smooth the top.
Arrange the fruit and bake: Working with 5 or 6 slices of pear at a time, fan out the slices and place on top of the batter in any arrangement, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar over the pears. Bake until the cake is golden brown around the edges, golden in patches between pear slices, the center is springy to the touch, and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool completely in the pan.
Serve: If you baked the cake in a springform pan, cut around the sides with a paring knife and carefully remove the outer ring. Serve slices of cake topped with more crème fraîche. ③
The cake, well wrapped and stored at room temperature, will keep up to 4 days, but is best served on the first or second day.
① Make sure that the pan or skillet you’re using has at least 2-inch-high sides to prevent overflow, as this recipe makes a lot of batter that bakes into a tall cake.
② Roasting and peeling your own chestnuts is a huge pain! The ones that come already cooked and peeled in a bag or jar save you lots of work and are soft enough that they’ll blend into a batter.
③ Beware of bits of chestnut that don’t break down completely and harden in the baked cake. You certainly won’t break a tooth, just know there might be a piece here or there depending on the softness of the chestnuts you’re using.