Vail Baking: A less fancy, just-as-tasty torte
High Country Baking
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –Names can be misleading, Vail Valley, so don’t let this one give you the wrong impression. This is a torte, but it isn’t a fancy one like you find in European bakeries or on the menus at trendy restaurants. It’s a simple cake, with cooked fruit, brown-sugar sweetness, wholesome whole wheat flour and ground walnuts that combine to create a deep, rich, old world flavor.
Yup, it’s different, but it’s just as good as its swanky namesakes. The pears, soaked in rum and brown sugar, melt into the dessert, leaving only their complex sweetness on your tongue. The thin cake that cradles them is moist and earthy, with a nutty, slightly rough texture and a vanilla taste. Serve it warm, with a scoop of ice cream or rum-flavored whipped cream and you’ve got yourself one fine cool-weather dessert.
My advice? It’s threefold: (1) Make sure the pears are firm and just turning ripe. If they’re soft, the torte will be mushy. (2) Though you could make it with all-purpose flour, try to find whole wheat pastry flour (try Natural Grocers and/or City Market); the nutty taste of whole wheat is a significant part of this dessert’s success. (3) Lastly, serve the torte the day you make it, when the flavors and textures are distinct.
A bonus: Because only egg whites and a little butter are used in the batter, the torte is low in fat (less than nine grams per serving).
Adjusted for altitudes between 8,000 and 10,000 feet
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Make in an eight-and-a-half inch springform pan
2 tablespoons of dark or light brown sugar
1 tablespoon of dark rum
2 firm, ripe pears
3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 teaspoons of vanilla
1/2 cup of walnut pieces
1/2 cup of light brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon of whole wheat pastry flour or all-purpose flour
3 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of granulated sugar
Step One: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, with a rack in the center position. Grease and flour the springform pan well or coat it with a vegetable oil-flour spray. In a mixing bowl, combine the two tablespoons of dark or light brown sugar and the dark rum and stir until all the sugar is absorbed into the rum. Core the pears (leave the skin on) and cut them into slices about one-quarter of an inch thick. Place the pear slices in the brown sugar-rum mixture and gently toss them until they are all well-coated and none of the brown sugar-rum remains in the bottom of the bowl. Set this aside for about 15 minutes while you make the cake’s batter so the pears can soak up the liquid.
Step Two: Blend the melted butter and vanilla and set aside. Put the walnuts, light brown sugar, and flour in the bowl of a food processor and process until the nuts are finely ground.
Step Three: Place the egg whites and salt in a medium, grease-free bowl (not plastic) and beat with an electric mixer at high speed until the whites form stiff peaks, stopping before they appear dry. Fold the nut mixture into the egg whites until combined. Add the butter-vanilla in small amounts and fold until well mixed. The egg whites will deflate; that’s OK. Spread the batter in the pan and level the top. Overlap the sliced pears on top of the batter in a decorative pattern. Sprinkle the tablespoon of granulated sugar over the pears.
Step Four: Place the filled pan on a cookie sheet and bake until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. This takes about 25 to 30 minutes in my oven. You may need to cover the edges of the torte with thin strips of aluminum foil if they get too brown before the center of the torte is fully baked. Remove the torte to a rack to cool.
After about 20 minutes, gently run a knife around the side of the pan and remove it. Serve the torte warm, topping each slice with some vanilla ice cream or rum-flavored whipped cream. If you make it earlier in the day, leave it in the pan, let it cool, then, right before serving, remove it from the pan, slice and reheat the pieces in a 325 degree oven until they are warm to the touch.
This recipe is a variation of one in Enlightened Cakes.
Vera Dawson, a chef instructor with Colorado Mountain College’s Culinary Institute, lives in Summit County, where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact Dawson with your comments about this column and/or your baking questions at email@example.com.