Sunday, April 08, 2007

Take This Crumb and Chèvre It

An overactive imagination can be a dangerous thing.

I'm pretty good at imagining worst-case scenarios when minor medical problems come up, or when friends don't make it to an appointed meeting place five minutes before I asked them to be there. I can spin some pretty wild yarns in my head, only to feel an overwhelming relief when those mental gyrations turn out to be completely far-fetched.

And on the culinary front, once I start thinking about how two or three flavors might work together... well, Dear Readers, it's no-holds-barred time. I'll start wondering how to showcase those flavors, what else might be needed to deepen the combination, and just how decadent I can make the dish in question. It's the sort of thinking that can keep me awake late at night and force me to stumble to the kitchen in search of an adequate midnight snack.

It's also the sort of thinking that leads me into the kitchen on a snowy morning to experiment. Sundays are the ideal time for me to test recipe ideas since I usually have a large block of time and a rested mind, and if those recipe ideas involve breakfast or brunch foods, so much the better.

Lately I've been pondering a combination I saw in a recipe sometime back: pears stuffed with chèvre (goat cheese) and walnuts, then poached and drizzled with a sweet syrup laced with balsamic vinegar. Being a fan of all those ingredients, I knew I had to try something myself. The only pears I have around right now, though, are ones that I canned myself, so poaching wasn't really an option.

And then I remembered a pear cake that my friend Mitch Heat has been known to rave about (especially when I take time from my vacation to make it for him). While I didn't want to make a butter cake, the idea of topping a cake with slices or wedges of pears and then a nut streusel seemed to be a good way to adapt my favorite vegan coffee cake recipe.

So away I went, starting with a walnut streusel laced with balsamic vinegar, a jar of home-canned pears, crumbled goat cheese, and a whole-wheat, no-refined-sweeteners vegan cake batter (with more balsamic vinegar added).


Once I had the pan ready and the oven up to speed, I whisked together wet and dry ingredients (best held off until the end since the rising action comes from vinegar hitting the baking soda), pressed the pears into the top, covered it with streusel, and slid the pan into the oven. After the cake baked part way, I added the crumbled goat cheese and let the oven do the rest.

Now, even if you're not a goat cheese fan, you might actually consider trying this, with or without the chèvre. The sweetness of the pears, the toasty flavor of the walnuts, and the deep but sweet tang of the balsamic vinegar all stand out more than the creamy cheese and balance it very nicely. And with a moist, tender cake beneath it all, you'd really be hard pressed to resist.

A slice of this, warm from the oven, made the perfect decadent brunch on a flurry-filled Easter Sunday, which just goes to show that sometimes my rampant imagination does a pretty good job after all.


Pear-Chèvre Crumb Cake

My favorite coffee cake recipe is, astonishingly, a dairy-free, double-layered delight from The Voluptuous Vegan (and how can you not love a title like that?) called a Date-Pecan Coffee Cake. For the pear and goat cheese combination, though, I thought that two layers might be a little tricky since the moisture of the pears could keep the middle from cooking completely. Instead, I've cut the cake recipe in half, omitted a filling, and tweaked the topping. Without the goat cheese, this cake is vegan, too. With it, it's a real treat for breakfast or dessert.

Topping:
1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 c chopped walnuts
1/4 c maple sugar (or Sucanat)
1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
up to 4 T canola oil, as needed

2 pears, halved or sliced (canned are fine; reserve syrup)
1/4 c creamy goat cheese, crumbled
balsamic vinegar

Cake:
1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3 T canola oil
1/2 c maple syrup
1/4 c syrup from pears (if canned), pear juice, or apple juice
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a springform pan (8" to 10") and set on a cookie sheet. Set aside.

Make the streusel topping by combining flour, walnuts, sugar, baking powder and salt. Drizzle in balsamic vinegar and enough canola oil, mixing everything with your fingers, until the texture is like running your fingers through wet sand (a little pebbly). Set aside.

To make the cake, in a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and baking soda. In a medium bowl, whisk together canola oil, maple syrup, pear syrup, vinegars, vanilla, and salt.

When oven is ready, whisk wet cake ingredients into dry ones until batter is well mixed. Pour into prepared springform pan, smoothing batter out to edges. Top with pear slices and streusel. Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes. Pull pan out and top cake with crumbled goat cheese and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, then bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, until cake is done in the middle and goat cheese is soft and starting to brown.

Set springform pan on serving platter and remove ring. Allow to cool before serving (if you can!).

Serves 6 to 8

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