Fall seems to get foodies pretty excited. I can't open a magazine these days without being sucked into the dappled, golden images of autumnal produce filling the markets and heartily agreeing about how great it is to crank up the oven after a long, hot summer of disuse (regardless of the fact that 'hot' and 'summer' are never used in the same sentence in Scotland... still, I get their point). I used to think that celebrating fall was simply a coping mechanism for dealing with the end of light and warmth and onset of everything cold, barren and dark, but recently I've had a change of heart. Either the magazines are having their intended effect on me or else I'm slowly gaining some wisdom in my old age (since that's another thing fall brings me each year: a birthday), but lately I've started to see it in a different light. Now it seems perfectly obvious that more than any other season, when you pare fall down to its skivvies, it is all about the food. And what's not to celebrate about that?
You'd think I would have figured it out sooner. After all, no matter where I've welcomed in this season - in California, where it tiptoes into place so stealthily that you could easily miss it if not for the calendar, or New Orleans where it flushes out a heat-ravaged city like a welcome sigh of relief, or Germany where its crisp, icy sunlight renders the blue skies and Technicolor trees even more vibrant - fall has always possessed the uncanny ability to make me incapable of thinking about anything but food. It makes sense though, really, since this season has just about the perfect confluence of conditions for eating well. Not only are the temperatures dropping, boosting the metabolism and making us ravenously hungry, but the last of the harvest is coming in, providing us with a bumper-crop of things to cook, preserve, eat and share. Then, of course, there is our biology at work - that very biology that tells us, as mammals, that winter is coming and we need to pack on a little extra padding to get through it alive. Add to that the long, dark nights perfect for pottering around the kitchen, the plethora of food-centric holidays, and the fact that the bikinis and skimpy shorts are safely tucked away for the next nine months (and with any luck won't cross our minds again until January 1st), and it's hard to deny that fall truly is the appetite's finest hour.
So if you ask me, this really is what the magazines should be emphasizing. It's not that the apples of fall are so much more delicious than the peaches of summer, or that mushrooms are inherently more satisfying than corn, it's that we're blessed with a season that couldn't be more perfect for cooking, eating and sharing our table with those we love. That's certainly enough to get me excited.
Piedmontese Hazelnut, Pear and Marsala Cake
In my ever-humble opinion, no one in Italy does fall like the Piedmontese. This mountainous region, after all, is the home of the white truffle, of wild mushrooms and chestnuts, of fonduta and bollito. I read about this Piedmontese hazelnut cake in Michele Scicolone's 1000 Italian Recipes (an unspectacular title for a really exceptional book, well-researched and chock-full of unusual regional gems culled from the author's extensive travels around the country). She claims to have eaten this cake in Piedmont with a side of poached pears, which seemed to me like a perfect match, but never one to leave well enough alone I decided to combine these two elements into one dessert, and threw in some Marsala for good measure. Its foundation is a dense, buttery cake, chock-full of nuts - and either rustic or refined, depending on how finely your nuts are ground - which is crowned with silky pear halves that were previously poached in vanilla and Marsala wine. If that weren't enough, after the cake comes out of the oven, the pear poaching liquid is reduced to a syrup which is used to gently saturate the cake, providing a boost in sweetness, moisture and intoxicating fragrance, not to mention a beautiful sheen to the finished product. Note that if you have access to commercial ground hazelnuts (or 'hazelnut flour'), you can use that instead of grinding your own. Toast the ground nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until the nuts are golden and fragrant - just don't let them get too dark or they will be bitter.
2/3 cup (150g) sugar
1/2 cup (125ml) white wine
1/2 cup (125ml) sweet or dry Marsala
1 cup (250ml) water, approximately
1 vanilla bean (or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract)
4-5 medium pears, peeled, halved and cored
1 1/2 cups (200g/about 2 2/3 cups pre-ground) hazelnuts
1/2 cup (70g) flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (110g) sugar
1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
whipped cream, to serve
Combine the sugar, wine, Marsala and water in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and with the tip of a knife scrape the seeds into the pan. Add the vanilla pod and the pear halves to the pan. If the liquid does not quite cover the pears add just enough water so that it does. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, reduce to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered, until the pears are tender when pierced with a knife, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Grease a 9-inch (23 cm) springform or cake pan. Toast the hazelnut for about 10 minutes, or until fragrant and the skins have split. Remove and cool. Rub the nuts in a towel to loosen as many skins as possible. Place the skinned nuts in a food processor and pulse until finely ground, but be careful not to turn it into a paste. Add the flour, baking powder and salt and process to combine.
Beat the sugar and butter together in a medium bowl until fluffy. Add the eggs, one by one, beating well after each addition. Fold in the nut mixture just until combined.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Drain the pear halves (reserving the liquid), and arrange them in a symmetrical pattern on top of the cake. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Remove to a cooling rack.
While the cake is baking, return the pear liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue to boil until the liquid has reduced to approximately 1/2 cup (125ml). Remove from the heat. When the cake has emerged from the oven and still hot, brush or drizzle the syrup over the top of the cake, waiting until each coat is absorbed before doing the next one. Cool the cake completely and serve with a mound of softly whipped cream.