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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Black Sesame and Pear Tea Cake

I poured the sesame seeds into the measuring cup and saw a twig.  Then a broken leaf.  <Sigh>  I was going to have to clean these seeds.  Forty-five minutes later, I had sorted through 1/2 cup of black sesame seeds, removing small pebbles and minute grains of sand, and squashing tiny insects that crawled out of the mound along the way.  I hadn't planned on this.  A simple loaf cake turned into a 3-hour enterprise.

After cleaning the sesame seeds, they had to be washed, dried, and then ground.  I don't have a spice grinder, but I do have a little one-cup processor.  It didn't work very well.  It took about 20 minutes to get the seeds broken down, but I wouldn't have called it a "paste".  So out came the mortar and pestle to finish off the job.  That actually wasn't too painful.  The entire time I kept thinking, "Screw this -- next time I'm using tahini."  But it was all worth it, truly.  Tahini would not have worked.  Well, okay, maybe it would have worked,  but the result would have been an entirely different cake.

First, you can't not notice the COLOR.  The batter was GREY, and the cake was BLACK.

Isn't that attractive?  Someone on the web page complained that people would think this was chocolate and be in for a rude surprise.  No.  Not if they have any faculties for discernment whatsoever.  This cake is grey-black, not brown-black.  It's grainy and rough, not fluffy and shiny.  If you must substitute (and really there is no substitute), buckwheat flour might give at least a similiar texture, but never the same flavor.

There is no replicating the taste of black sesame.  It's earthy and musky and dark, like its name.  This cake is instant comfort food, even though I'm pretty sure I've never had anything like it before.  It's like crack; I was addicted with the first bite.

The comments on the web site -- and there were only 10 -- swung wildly from "the cake was dense and moist, like pound cake" to "it was dry and crumbly"; from "the directions were fine" to "there's a mistake -- my cake was done in less than an hour"; from "this was the best thing I've ever eaten" to "it went into the trash."  Wow.  How does that happen?  Well, I think it mostly depends on the pear used.  (There's no accounting for taste -- pity the woman who threw her cake in the trash.)  A ripe pear is fragrant, floral, and juicy.  VERY juicy.  If these people who ended up with "dry and crumbly, or "done in half the time" used a less-than-ripe pear, it explains a lot.  The batter is thick and does not seem overly moist, but those sesame seeds are fibrous, and soak up a lot of liquid I'm guessing.  You need that to soften the fiber and make it palatable, but you also need to make sure the cake dries out enough to serve.

February is not pear season, so while I had a ripe pear, it was not at its peak.  There were no floral overtones; the flavor was one-dimensional. But it was juicy.  Nonetheless, fearing I might over bake the cake, I started testing at 50 minutes -- it still seemed a little too moist.  At an hour and 15, the tester came out clean, so I took the cake out and let it cool.  It didn't fall -- another good sign it had baked long enough.  But when I cut into it, clearly it was still too moist.  It actually seemed sufficiently baked -- there was a nice crumb, dense, but open as one would expect.  But the slice was so fragile I couldn't get it out of the pan in one piece, and it somewhat gummed together in the mouth.  (This didn't stop me from having a few slices.  Like crack, I tell ya.)

There was no way the cake would have come out of the pan, and I couldn't serve it as it was, so I did something that has never worked before:  the next day, I put the cake back into a pre-heated oven and baked it some more.  And guess what... It worked!  I think it worked because the cake truly was fully baked, it just needed more time to steam off the excess moisture.  (I placed foil against the cut edge to keep it from drying out too much.)  So in the end, a winner.

This being an unusual recipe with a wide range of previous results, I didn't want to mess around with it, so I stuck to the original mostly.  The only change was I copied Bon Appétit and sprinkled raw sugar on top, one tablespoon's worth, which covered it nicely.  Two seemed like it would have been too much, so I switched to granulated.  I'm inclined in the future to use neither.   Here's what I used:

 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup almond flour or almond meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons plus ½ cup black sesame seeds
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 (medium) firm but ripe Bosc pear, peeled, cored, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 325°. Butter one 9x5x3-inch loaf pan or six 4x2x2-inch paper or metal loaf pans. Whisk  cups flour, next 4 ingredients, and 2 tablespoons sesame seeds in a medium bowl. Grind remaining 1/2 cup sesame seeds in spice mill to form a thick paste, about 2 minutes.  Using an electric mixer, beat butter and 1 1/3 cups sugar in a large bowl until well combined, 2–3 minutes. Add sesame paste and beat, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl, until blended, 1–2 minutes. Add egg and egg yolk. Beat until pale and fluffy, 3–4 minutes. On low speed, beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Toss pear with remaining 2 Tbsp. flour in a small bowl; fold into batter.  Spoon batter into prepared pan; smooth top. Sprinkle with remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar.  Bake until a tester comes out clean when inserted into center, about 1 hour 40 minutes for large loaf and 45–55 minutes for small loaves. Let cool in pans on a wire rack.

This isn't the prettiest cake.

The cake is fantastic on its own, but I think the sweetness level is a little high as a snack cake.  One woman served it with a pear crumble and frozen honey mousse (both recipes available at Bon Appétit), which I think is absolutely inspired.  Especially the frozen mousse -- the roughness of the cake would benefit from the creamy mousse.  This would also fancy it up and make it more appropriate as a dessert course.

Conclusion:  SOOO good!  Definitely a keeper!  And worth the effort to clean the sesame seeds.  I'll just plan on that task next time.

Recipe:  Black Sesame-Pear Tea Cake by Elizabeth Quijada of Abraço (NYC), via Bon Appétit

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