Alluring and complex, star anise is the “je ne sais quoi” ingredient of this deceptively simple cake.
“Je ne sais quoi” is a French expression meaning a quality that cannot easily be described or named. And, ironically, this perfectly describes star anise, which is related to anise, but isn’t overly licorice-like. It has hints of clove and allspice, but with just a bit of undefinable savory, it’s not at all Christmasy.
Once baked, combining pear with star anise creates an almost caramel flavor as you inhale and lingers in your mouth as an exotic spice when you exhale. It’s a beautiful sensation especially for such an unassuming looking cake.
This cake came about accidentally on purpose. I was in the mood for my Pumpkin loaf. The grocery stores where I live don’t sell canned pumpkin, so I decided to swap out roasted butternut squash for the pumpkin. The result? Delicious! It was very similar in taste to the pumpkin. But that got me thinking…
What else could I swap in for the pumpkin or other squash? Pear immediately came to mind. But since the texture and liquid level of pear is different than squash, I needed to make some adjustments, as well as some of the spices. In the end, this cake shares some ingredients and processes but it is its own beautiful being. And now, one of my favorite cakes!
Je Ne Sais Quoi Cake (Star Anise and Pear)
- 4 cups (500 g) all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 star anise, ground to powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon Kosher or sea (not table) salt
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 cup olive oil
- 4 large eggs
- 1 1/2 cups diced and mashed, cooked pears (2-3 pears. I used Bosc, but Bartlett and Anjou also work well)
- Zest of one lemon
- 1 tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2/3 cup pear juice* (from the juice you drained from the cooked pears)
- Zest lemon and set side zest.
- Peel and core pears. Dice into 1/2 inch pieces (1 cm)
- Juice the zested lemon and toss the pear pieces with 1 tablespoon of juice
- Heat a sauce pan to medium heat and add the pears and lemon juice. Stir occasionally until pears are soft and semi-transparent, about 7-9 minutes. Drain the juice rendered from the pears. Save it for step 10, below. (*If your pears don’t produce 2/3 cup juice, make up the difference with water.)
- Let pears cool to room temperature. Mash them with a fork or potato masher until they reach a thick paste consistency. Alternatively, you can mince them with a knife. Restrain the mashed pears to capture the juice. Measure out 1 1/2 cups of the mashed pears
- Pre-heat oven to 350F (180C)
- Line two standard size loaf pans with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang to help remove the pear loaves after baking. Spray with vegetable or olive oil
- In a medium bowl, sift dry ingredients
- In a large bowl, beat sugar, olive oil, eggs, and lemon zest until light and fluffy with a stand- or hand-held mixer
- Add the mashed pears to the batter. Mix just until incorporated
- Add dry ingredients and the pear juice to the pear mixture, alternating between the dry ingredients and pear juice, beating well after each addition
- Pour into two standard size loaf pans
- Bake at 350F (180C) on the center rack for 60 minutes or until loaves test done (toothpick comes out clean. The top of each loaf will crack and may look slightly undercooked. It will continue baking after it’s removed from the oven. The center may also sink a little which is normal. If this bothers you, serve it flipped upside down)
- Cool in the loaf pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Then remove from pans to cool completely on racks
- Once cooled, wrap in plastic wrap or foil. This keeps well at room temperature for up to four days. Or, tightly wrap in plastic wrap and foil and freeze for up to two months. If frozen, thaw in refrigerator overnight