Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reversal of Fortune

While I did not spend my Easter nailed to the cross, I faced my own pocket of hardship this past week. One moment we were fangin' it down the highway with the Volvo packed tight with camping equipment, pirate stories on high volume and an itinerary that would take our family from Sydney to Canberra and then in a leisurely fashion through some of Australia's finer coastal national parks. The next I was on my own doorstep with a bag full of dirty laundry and the baby in my arms. It was not supposed to be like this. But what can you do but fly home when you have a baby that cried for 5 1/2 hours* on the short stretch of road from Sydney to Canberra with only more driving, much more driving, in store? While the boys went on ahead, Hazel and I knocked around the house like shell-shocked refugees.

But while my own reversal of fortune was not as extreme as JCs (I did not die, I was not resurrected) I have to say things eventually turned around. Firstly, my friend Claire lent me a book – A Homemade Life: stories and recipes from my kitchen table by Molly Wizenberg that singlehandedly saved me from a pity party. Based on Wizenberg's food blog Orangette, not only was it a beautifully written memoir by someone in their late 20s writing with such love and feeling about their grief for their recently deceased dad (a man that went by the excellent nickname Burg), growing up in small town America, life changing travel to France and a page-turning romance but it was a cookbook to boot. I know it's a big call but I think it might be the most perfectly composed cookbook ever. Not only are the recipes the kind that send you to the shop on a mission but the personal narrative doesn't just frames them. It injects them with urgency and meaning. It says: this is where I live and what I make and eat, and how I eat it without it being nauseatingly aspirational in its intention (Hello Donna Hay!).

I had the chance to try one of the recipes right away, on the occasion of Easter Sunday, when we were invited to a friends place for an Easter egg hunt and lunch. It was a lovely day. This Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramelized Pears was a winner. It was buttery, with a hit of heat from the ginger and fragrant with lemon zest. It was a truly festive cake, just as the occasion required and it was easy and fast to make. Here it is reproduced with a few modifications. Honestly, I can't recommend it enough.

* Some will not believe this is possible so I should add, she stopped every time we pulled over – frequently as it turned out to give our ear drums a rest. Also in each hour there was five minutes or so when the crying shifted to a whimper then to a natter before finding its full volume again.

Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramelized Pears
from A Homemade Life: stories and recipes from my kitchen table by Molly Wizenberg

For the cake

1 cup plain flour
1/2 teaspoon bicarb of soda
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/4 cup unsulfered molasses
1/4 cup of sour cream (full fat)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter melted and cooled slightly
1/4 cup firmly packed lightly brown sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest

For the caramelized pears

2 medium firm-ripe pears
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup of sugar
3 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 2/3 teaspoons brandy or burbon ( I didn't add this, tasted delicious nonetheless)


Set an oven rack to middle position and preheat the oven to 350 o F. Grease an 8-inch round baking pan with butter or cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, combine the molasses, sour cream, butter, brown sugar, egg, ginger, and lemon zest and whisk until smooth. Add the flour mixture and still until just combined. Pour the mixture into a prepared pan and spread it evenly with a rubber spatula.

Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 15 to 20 minutes. Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then turn it out onto the rack. Cool to room temperature.

When you're ready to serve the cake, prepare the caramelized pears. Carefully peel the pears, and cut each lengthways into 8 wedges, discarding the coars. place them in a medium bowl, and toss them with the lemon juice.

In a heavy skillet just large enough to hold the pears in one layer – a 10-inch is about right – melt the butter over medium heat. Add the pears and cook, shaking the skillet occasionally, for 3 minutes. Sprinkle them with sugar and continue to cook, shaking the skillet and gently turning the pears until the sugar is melted and the pears are tender. (I like to keep mine on the firm sidem so that they don't lose their shape or start to fall apart, but if you'd like them more meltingly soft, go right ahead). Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pears back to their bowl. It's okay if there's still lemon juice in there – leave it.

Still over medium heat, boil the sugar-butter mixture remaining in the skillet, stirring occasionally, until it turns a deep shade of caramel. While the mixture cooks, combine the water and cream in a small bowl or cup. When the caramel is the right colour, remove the skillet from the heat and carefully – it could splutter – add the cream mixture. Then add the brandy and a pinch of salt. Return the skillet to the heat simmer, stirring, until thickened slightly. (If your caramel seized when you added the liquids, don't worry,; whisk briskly until it is smooth again.) Return the pears to the skillet and cook until heated through.

Serve the cake in wedges, with a few pieces of pear alongside and caramel drizzled over the top.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings


  1. In a roundabout way it was a blessing that little Hazel decided to scream her lungs out. If you'd been lolling about at some campsite somewhere I would have missed out on what was surely the most pleasant dessert experience I've ever had. Thanks for the great day!
    Em x

  2. My pleasure – and you're right. It worked out great.