Since I grew up in Hong Kong eating ginger as a part of my regular diet, I never thought much about it until I encountered the root many years later in an East-meets-West concoction that made me reconsider it in a completely new way. Ginger (botanical name Zingiber officinale) is in the same family as turmeric and cardamom. It is native to Southern Asia and has long been a staple in Asian cuisines and is an important element in traditional Chinese medicine.
On a sunny, brisk Fall morning more than ten years ago, M and I had breakfast in Chinatown (congee, crullers, and veggies) and decided to stroll through Soho to get coffee. We came across a small bakery/cafe named Once Upon a Tart that looked like many other food places in Soho at the time, cozy and casual—old paint on single pane windows and mismatched wooden chairs and tables inside. The real charm, though, came from the racks of well-used professional bakeware and small mounds of tantalizing bake goods.
This was definitely a place to investigate, which meant multiple tastes to get a sense of the bakery’s offerings. Among the haul was a Pear and Ginger Muffin. Unlike a lot of other ginger bake goods that have other spices added, this one focused on just pure ginger. The vivid heat of the root came through without any burning sensation, and the subtle sweetness of the pears was a perfect complement. The crusty top of the muffin contrasted with the tender interior. This muffin has easily stayed in my taste memory.
Recently when I was reminiscing about old favorites with friends, I thought how nice it would be having the aroma of ginger coming from the oven. In order to capture the essence of the flavor, I used ground ginger, fresh ginger, and crystallized ginger. The cake embellishes on the original inspiration with the addition of a good amount of sliced pear on top, which I thought was missing from the muffin version. Although assembled as an upside down cake, these miniatures are baked with less time, thus the top will not be caramelized. The paleness only makes the flavor of ginger more pronounced. The use of corn syrup results in a glistening top. Try this cake for the intoxicating aroma of ginger and the sweetness of fall harvest pears—and for a departure from traditional Thanksgiving desserts.
Individual Ginger Pear Cake
Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for tin
6 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1 Bartlett or 2 Bosc pear, peeled, cored, and cut into thin wedges
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large whole egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely grated
3/4 cup buttermilk or whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter the giant muffin tin (six 8-ounce cups). Place 1 teaspoon butter in each muffin cup. Top each with 1 tablespoon corn syrup; sprinkle with 2 teaspoons light-brown sugar. Arrange 4-5 cranberries in each cup. Place 4-5 pear slices on top of the berries, spreading slices to cover berries. Arrange remaining berries over the pears, and set tin aside.
2. Into a small bowl, sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and ginger; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat granulated sugar and butter on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add egg, egg yolk and ginger; beat until smooth.
3. With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture in two batches, alternating with buttermilk, and beginning and ending with flour. Stir in vanilla and almond extract.
4. Pour 1/3 cup batter over pear mixture in each muffin cup. Gently tap bottom of tin to evenly distribute the batter.
5. Bake cakes until golden around the edges and a cake tester inserted in the centers comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven; let cool in tin for 15 minutes.
6. Use a toothpick or plastic knife to loosen sides of cake and invert onto cooking rack. Serve warm or at room temperature with a dollop of whipped cream.