Once upon a time, there was a charming cottage nestled in the lush woods of northern Michigan. One day, a brilliant and inspired chef named Pete Peterson cast a spell, transforming it into an enchanted restaurant, which he named Tapawingo. It thrived for over 25 years, and the legend of its magical food spread far and wide. By and by things changed in Michigan, and fewer travelers were able to visit and enjoy the culinary treasures that Tapawingo offered. The devoted chef saw no alternative but to close his beloved eatery, though he did so with a heavy heart. All of the people who loved Tapawingo, and all of the people who wished they could have gone there but never had a chance to do so, were sad. The End.
Fairy tale or true story? It's true, and though I wish I could say I had been one of the lucky diners, I never made it to Tapawingo. Described by the New York Times in 2003 as being of "international stature," the place was a culinary gem unique to the Midwest right up to its closure in 2009. The stuff that used to come out of that kitchen--famous for using the finest and freshest locally-sourced ingredients before doing so was all the rage--sounded so sublime. I am holding out hope, though, that some enlightened literary agent gets on the stick and convinces Peterson to write a cookbook one of these days. It will be such a pity if this never happens. Heck, I'd start a letter writing campaign if only I knew who to write to.
About this recipe . . .
So if there's no cookbook, how did I come upon this particular recipe, credited to that singular chef, Harlan "Pete" Peterson? It's from a homey compilation called Heartland Baking from the Midwest's Best Cooks, a slim cookbook from the collection of my late mom. Paging through it, when I realized where this particular recipe came from, I knew I had to try it. Thus I offer up this pear and ginger cake in homage to the enchanted Michigan restaurant that is no more.
Very gingery and ultra-moist, with an understated sweetness, this charming little cake is meant to be served with a casual drizzle of warm, cognac-spiked pear sauce. This is one autumn dessert that will help take the chill off.
In adapting this, I made only tiny alterations to the formula, adjusting the proportion of spices a wee bit here and there, as I didn't want to tamper too cavalierly with perfection.
Pear and Ginger Cake . . . with Cognac-Pear Sauce
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)
Ingredients for the cake:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (I used light brown sugar)
2 eggs, large
1/4 cup molasses (I used the brand called Grandma's--the Robust variety)
1 Tbsp. fresh grated ginger root (no need to even peel the root before grating)
1 and 1/2 cups All Purpose flour (I used unbleached)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt (actually, I substituted 3/4 tsp. kosher salt)
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
2/3 cup buttermilk or sour milk (I used the best buttermilk I could find)
1 ripe medium-sized pear, peeled, cored, and sliced thinly (I used an Anjou pear; these tough-skinned pears work really well for baking/stewing, etc.)
Ingredients for the pear-cognac sauce:
1 cup water
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Four ripe 8 oz. pears (again, I used just Anjou pears)
2 to 4 Tbsp. cognac (I used Courvoisier, but if you're lucky enough to have Poire William liqueur on hand, you can use that. If you prefer, leave the liqueur out entirely; perhaps substitute apple juice if you feel more liquid is required.)
To make the cake:
Butter and flour lightly an 8" x 8" baking dish (I used a glass baking dish; it's a very moist cake and somehow I didn't think a metal pan would be the best choice.)
In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the butter just until it's softened, on medium-low speed. Into this add the brown sugar, and beat until fluffy. Add in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each, then add in the molasses and the ginger root.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg. Add this, alternately with the buttermilk, into the mixing bowl on low speed. Beat just until combined.
Gently fold the thinly-sliced pear into the batter. Spread the batter into the prepared pan and bake at 350 for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean (well, more or less clean!). Cool the cake in its pan on a cooling rack.
With a peeler, remove the zest from half of the lemon (just the thin yellow upper skin, be sure to include none of the bitter white pith). In a medium size heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the zest, 2 Tbsp of juice from the lemon, 1 cup of water, and the 1/4 cup sugar. Heat over a medium-low flame until the sugar dissolves, stirring periodically.
Peel, core, and quarter the four pears. Add them into the sugar mixture. Cook this uncovered until the pears become tender, perhaps 10 minutes or more.
With a slotted spoon, remove the pears from the pan and put them in the bowl of a food processor.
Continue cooking the liquid in the saucepan until it has reduced by half, then remove and throw away the lemon peel. Pour the liquid into the food processor bowl.
Pulse the mixture until it is completely smooth. Put it in a small bowl, and stir in the cognac.
Serve the sauce warm, draped over individual pieces of cake. Sprinkle confectioner's sugar on the pieces first, if you like.