Planning ahead for the many vacation days I would need to use for the wedding this year, I never took a summer vacation. Planning for the expense of Ireland, I never even took a weekend shore trip or a few days in the Poconos. And so I baked in my air condition-less apartment, sipping rum drinks Will concocted and reading the New York Times food section as it went on and on about how lovely it was to take a jaunt down to "The Cape" and cook sea food and walk on the beach. One article in particular caught my eye, talking about the limited kitchen resources in a rental, but how one place she had stayed at had big cast iron pans hanging on the wall. She went on and on about how the pans were so very useful, handling everything from fried potatoes to a baked peach crisp. I was enchanted, and decided it was absolutely necessary to add a cast iron pan to my arsenal.
Conventional wisdom holds that the ideal cast iron pan is handed down from your grandmother, has cooked 800 meals, and has never seen a drip of soap. By cleaning only with hot water and a stiff brush the flavor and essence of those 800 meals clings to the metal and infuses itself into every new dish. In serious culinary families severe divides have been created amongst siblings gunning to inherit such a pan. My family has no such pan, as far as I know (insert suspicious glares at my cousins here). This being New York City, lineage can be purchased if the price is right. I know for a fact that The Brooklyn Kitchen--where I took my knife skills class--sells refurbished antique cast irons, but they were a bit out of my price range. Onto my registry went a 9" cast iron pan, and every few weeks I would peek at it, dreaming of the family heirloom I was about to start. Well big thank you to childhood friend Lucy (spoiler alert: she's a soon to be mommy! yay!), cause this week it arrived, heavy, black and ready to go.
I have heard that if you aren't a cast iron heiress then the first order of business for the new pan is to cook up a big batch of bacon to get the flavor absorption started. Bacon, it seems, is wonderful and has many uses. Every now and again, I catch Will trying to pour bacon grease on his cereal instead of milk--an eerily attractive concept. Unfortunately, I had no bacon on hand, but I did have the leftover panchetta from last week's stuffing. Into the pan it went, fried up beautifully and an heirloom was born. Carefully studying the care instructions I cleaned with hot water and a brush, sprayed with vegetable oil while still warm, and put in a cool dry place.
Now that I had started the seasoning, I needed the first real recipe to break in the new pan. The article that had first piqued my interest was all beach focused, and the snow swirling past my window Saturday night did not put me in the mood for such fare. I needed something built for cold weather, something with a winter comfort food feel. Searching a bit more on the NY Times website turned up an article I had seen last month from Mark Bittman about a Pear Upside-Down Cake. That's right, not only was I going to bake, I was going to invert it. Fuck you Isaac Newton.
The video included in his blog told me that I had found a kindred baking spirit. He gets frustrated at having to complete two steps at once, and really doesn't feel that making things pretty when baking is an absolute necessity. Also hysterical is when he decides that if a little egg shell gets in, well that just adds "crunch." Brilliant. He doesn't actually use a cast iron when he makes it, but it turned up in the search because someone in the comments suggests it. Searching the website of Lodge Cast Iron, the company that made my pan, turned up a recipe for Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, and a confirmation that upside cake is really meant for a cast iron. That was all the prodding I needed, so I plunged in.
Maple Pear Upside-Down CakeAdapted from the NY TimesIngredients:11 tablespoons butter3/4 cup maple syrup1/4 cup packed brown sugar3 to 4 pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced3/4 cup granulated sugar1 teaspoon vanilla2 large eggs1 1/2 cups flour1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder1/4 teaspoon salt1/2 cup milk.Directions:1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a 9" cast iron pan over medium heat; add maple syrup and brown sugar and cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and cook for another 2 minutes; remove from heat and set aside. When mixture has cooled a bit, arrange pear slices in an overlapping circle on top.2. With a handheld or standing mixer, beat remaining 8 tablespoons butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs, one egg at a time, continuing to mix until smooth. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.3. Add flour mixture to butter mixture in three batches, alternating with milk; do not overmix. Carefully spread batter over pears, using a spatula to make sure it is evenly distributed. Bake until top of cake is golden brown and edges begin to pull away from sides of pan, about 45 to 50 minutes; a toothpick inserted into center should come out clean. Let cake cool for 5 minutes.4. Run a knife around edge of pan; put a plate on top of cake and carefully flip it so plate is on bottom and pan is on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.