Pear-gingerbread upside-down cake from Heartlandia
Finished cake with caramel glaze. (Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

Finished cake with caramel glaze. (Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

Associate Garden Editor Lauren Dunec Hoang discovered that, during the holidays, this delicious pear-gingerbread upside-down can be breakfast!

Why this recipe?Just like Jackie Sappington, co-author of the cookbook Heartlandia, I’m a real sucker for upside-down cakes. I was excited to try this one for our November edition of the Sunset Cookbook Club since the cake had such a holiday feel. Gingerbread seems like Christmas, but the addition of pears puts this upside-down cake squarely in the realm of fall desserts. Plus, the pretty spiral of pear slices and decadent caramel glaze makes it fancy enough for the Thanksgiving table.

What was it like to make it?The two-step process—caramelizing and prepping fruit first, making cake batter second—is typical of other upside-down cakes I’ve tried.  While you warm up your baking pan in a 350° oven, make your caramel sauce over the stove. (Note: The recipe calls for using a 9 x 13 inch baking pan which I didn’t have. Instead, I used a 12-inch tarte tartin pan and baked the extra batter into a mini gingerbread loaf.) So, first, I combined the butter and brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat, and stirred frequently until a caramel formed (about 8 to 10 minutes).

Caramel beginning to bubble. (Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

Then, I removed the baking pan from the oven, sprayed it with non-stick cooking spray, and poured the hot caramel sauce right into the pan. The caramel was pretty thick, and I imagine that if the pan had not been heated up in the oven, the caramel would have been difficult to spread.

(Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

Next, I arranged the peeled Bosc pear slices in a circle, nestling them down in the caramel a bit. Since the bottom of the pan would later become the top of the cake, I tried to arrange the pears as evenly as possible, keeping the fat ends of each slice towards the edge of the pan and the skinny stem portion of the pear slices pointed towards the center. Then I set the pan aside.

(Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

To make the cake batter, the cookbook authors have you separate the ingredients into three bowls: one for the flour, baking powder, and spices; a second for the molasses, baking soda, and hot water; and a third for the butter, sugar, and egg. Essentially, you mix each in their respective bowl and then start adding one part of the dry mixture (bowl one) with one part of the molasses mixture (bowl two) to your creamed butter, sugar, and egg (bowl three—make sure it’s a big one). I can see that this is the most controlled way to make sure everything is evenly mixed, but it felt like a lot of bowls.

Dry ingredients for the cake batter. (Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

Once all of the ingredients for the cake batter were mixed, I poured the batter over the arranged pears slices. As I mentioned, since I didn’t have a 9 by 13 inch pan, I ended up having a bit of batter left over. I poured it into a small loaf pan for a mini gingerbread loaf—turned out great!

(Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

The recipe calls for baking the cake for 30 minutes at 350°.  I found it took more like 45 minutes, which could very well have been due to baking the cake and the small loaf at the same time.

How did it turn out?The cake itself is moist and dense, with a rich molasses flavor and heady smell of ginger. The best part? The gooey caramel sauce drips down over the pears for a luxurious glaze. When I brought it in to share with staff, everyone loved it. Our garden photo editor and self-proclaimed gingerbread-lover Linda Lamb Peters exclaimed, “The pear is a perfect pairing—get it?!”

Finished cake with caramel glaze. (Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

(Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

Will I make it again?Yes! In a heartbeat. I swapped the ice cream for Greek yogurt to get away with serving the cake with coffee the next morning. It would be even better as a dessert served straight out of the oven, when the caramel sauce is hot and melty.

(Lauren Dunec Hoang / Sunset Publishing)

PEAR-GINGERBREAD UPSIDE-DOWN CAKEMakes 1 (9 by 13-inch) cake

“I’ve got a real thing for upside-down cakes, and I make a lot of seasonal varietiescranberry, rhubarb, lemon, you name it,” writes Jackie Sappington, co-author of the cookbook Heartlandia. “This dark, molasses-y pear-gingerbread cake is my favorite by far. The pears hold up really well and play perfectly with the warming spices in the cake. Though a lot of gingerbread cakes get better with age, this is one you’ll want to eat warm, when it’s nice and gooey. Serve thick squares of the cake with a scoop of ice cream as a fancy dinner party dessert, or offer it as an indulgent brunch dish with a pot of coffee on the side.”


4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted1/2 cup (3.75 oz./ 107 g.) packed light brown sugarNonstick cooking spray3 large firm-ripe Bartlett or Bosc pears, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices


1 cup (11 oz./314 g.) unsulphured blackstrap molasses1 tsp. baking sodaHot water2 1/2 cups (12.5 oz./360 g.) all-purpose flour1 tbsp. baking powder2 tsp. ground cinnamon2 tsp. ground ginger1/2 tsp. kosher salt8 tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature1 cup (7.5 oz./214 g.) packed light brown sugar1 large eggVanilla ice cream, for serving (optional)

1. Make the caramel and pears: Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°. Place a 9 by 13-inch baking pan in the oven to warm for 5 minutes.

2. While the pan warms, in a small saucepan, combine the butter with the sugar and heat over medium heat, stirring, until the butter has melted, the sugar has completely dissolved, and a smooth, emulsified caramel forms, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the baking pan from the oven, spray it with nonstick cooking spray, and pour the caramel into it, spreading with a rubber spatula to cover the bottom of the pan evenly. Arrange the pears in three overlapping rows on top of the caramel. Set the baking pan aside.

3. Make the gingerbread cake: In a medium bowl, combine the molasses, baking soda, and 1 1/2 cups hot water and whisk to combine. Set aside to cool until lukewarm. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, and salt and whisk to combine. Set aside.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a bowl using a hand mixer, combine the butter and sugar, and cream on medium speed until fluffy. Add the egg and mix, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. With the mixer running on medium-low speed, add the cooled molasses mixture in three additions, alternating with the flour mixture. Pour the batter over the pears and spread it evenly with a rubber spatula. Bake the cake for 30 minutes or until a tester stick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

5. Let the cake rest in the pan for 3 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake, then invert it onto a large rectangular serving plate. Leave the pan on top of the cake for 5 minutes to let the pears settle before gently removing it. (If some of the pears stick to the pan, simply rearrange them on the cake). Cut the cake into squares and serve warm or at room temperature, with ice cream, if desired.

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