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Recipe-phile: Guests will give thanks for pear cake and caramel rolls

A slice of honey and pear cake, as seasonal and as comforting as pumpkin pie. (Amy Thielen / For the Enterprise)

Oh, no. As I sit here in my office flicking crumbs off my keyboard I wonder what I've done. Have you ever come upon a recipe so stellar that you almost wish you hadn't found it? Success in baking is nice, but that rare superior luck, such as the kind that caught up with me as I was testing the pull-apart rolls, that tests a person's resolve.

But here's to finding a decadent way to kick off the holiday season! In years past I've often skipped the rolls, making such a surplus of sides that I hoped no one noticed the bread deficiency.

Still, homemade bread, or the lack of, makes me think of my grandmother, whose blue-ribbon for bread from the Minnesota State Fair continues to impress and challenge her progeny.

She could whip up a batch of bread with lightning speed, her arms spinning as the dough thwacked against the bowl; she could probably have three pans of buns rolled and in the oven in the time it takes me to formulate my excuses.

Well, I'm skipping them no longer because the ­­- ahem, second batch - of rolls I just pulled from the oven take a mere two hours from start-to-finish and taste like the spawn of a yeasted potato bun and a caramel roll. Loosely based on a buttery French brioche recipe, golden with egg yolks, they're nonetheless much easier than classic brioche. And with soft strings of bread tearing in threads beneath a shiny lacquered caramel top, they're pretty irresistible.

The sweetness is subtle: the divot of caramel stuffed into their centers dissipates in the oven into a crackling honey glaze. In fact, these buns taste less sweet than a hot-cross bun or, for that matter, any kind of sweet potato side dish, just enough to give the gravy I sop with them a touch of caramelization.

Having already broken the holiday baking barrier I thought I'd work on a new Thanksgiving dessert, something to sit alongside the pumpkin pie that I always make. The honey and pear cake began with a French recipe too, but as the ones I drool over never actually work in my own kitchen (European flour being hopelessly different than ours) the cake made several mathematical revolutions before I was finally happy with it.

The trials were worth it. The small dollop of honey contributes to the rich background flavor and the moist crumbs, and I love how the floating chunks of blond pear give the cake a rustic, old-world elegance.

I sliced it razor-thin, so that I could see the plate pattern through the pear slice, and with a dollop of whipped cream and a cup of strong black coffee, found my midday moment of contentment, like a cat in a sun-slice. We're a week early for dessert comas, but sometimes it's nice to space things out, too.

Honey and Pear Cake

2 sticks butter, at room temperature

2 1/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons honey

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1/4 teaspoons salt

6 eggs

2 3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 pears (Anjou, either yellow or red, but not too ripe)

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons kirsch or rum or cider

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/3 cup sugar

Prepare a 10-cup bundt pan by brushing it with melted butter and then sifting a little flour over it, tilting, and knocking out the excess.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Peel, quarter and core the pears. Heat a sauté pan over high heat and add 2 tablespoons butter. When it melts, add the pears. Cook, stirring once or twice, over high heat until browned in spots. Off heat, add the 2 tablespoons honey and the kirsch. Stir to combine, and cook another minute to let the flavors blend. Pour the pears into a colander set over a bowl to drain pears. Reserve liquid.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and then sift together again.

Put the butter in a mixing bowl and whip to soften. Add the sugar gradually and then continue whipping until completely creamed together, soft and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, whipping completely between each and scraping down the sides. Add the vanilla and honey and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture in three additions, mixing just enough to combine, no more. Overmixing the cake at this point will make it tough.

Gently mix the pears into the batter with a rubber spatula. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 325 degrees. Bake for another hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool for 20 minutes before carefully cutting around the center pole to loosen cake and unmolding it.

For the glaze, heat the reserved pear-cooking liquid with 1/3 cup sugar and the lemon juice in a small pan over medium-high heat. Boil until the glaze bubbles and feels sticky between your thumb and forefinger. (How long this takes will depend on how much liquid your pears release during cooking.) Cool slightly before brushing on the cooled cake.

Golden Pull-Apart Rolls

Makes 20 buns

3 1/4 cup bread flour (such as Dakota Maid)

1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons salt

6 tablespoons soft butter

2 large eggs, room temperature

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk, warmed to 120 to 130 degrees


1/2 cup brown sugar

2 Tablespoons butter

1 1/2 Tablespoons heavy cream

pinch salt

Rub the yeast into flour in a large bowl, then rub in butter. Stir in sugar and salt. Whisk eggs into milk and pour onto flour mixture. Mix with a fork until it gathers into a ball. Scrape sides with a rubber spatula and pour the dough out onto an unfloured countertop. (The dough will feel unusually wet, but resist the temptation to add more flour.)

The dough will be sticky, and you work it until it miraculously comes together in a ball.

Slide your fingers underneath both sides of dough with your thumbs on top. Lift dough up high, stretching it fully, then slap it back on the countertop and give it a half-turn. Essentially, it's a sloppier form of kneading that will incorporate more air into the dough. Keep working it until it begins to clean the countertop and becomes firmer and more supple. Keep going until it comes together into a smooth ball and no longer sticks, about 8 minutes. Place in a clean bowl, cover with a tea towel and let rise at room temperature until doubled, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove from dough and divide dough into quarters. Roll each quarter into a long snake about 1 1/2 inches circumference. Cut it into 15 pieces and roll them into balls. Fit three balls into a greased (or better yet, nonstick) muffin pan. Repeat until you have used all the dough; you should have 20 buns.

For the caramel filling, stir the brown sugar and butter together until combined. Add the cream and salt and stir until mixed.

Place a small dollop (about 3/4 teaspoon) filling in the center of the rolls. Let rolls rise under a light towel until they reach the level of the pan.

Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve while warm.