Cele’s Old-Fashioned Pear Cake Recipe

From Michael Ableman's book, Fields of Plenty, a rustic, homey, unfussy pear cake recipe that comes together in five minutes before baking.

Cele’s Old-Fashioned Pear Cake

I've been enjoying Michael Ableman's book, Fields of Plenty over the past week. Fruits, farms, free-thinkers, and freeways - my kind of read. Today's pear cake recipe comes from this new volume.

Let me set the stage: Michael Ableman, a British Columbian farmer on the cusp of his fiftieth birthday, packs up his late-model Volkswagen at the peak of the summer harvest, and hits the highway in a quest to visit twenty-five North American artisan farms. In addition to the cameras, film, notebooks, harmonicas, and provisions a trips like this requires, he also brings along his twenty-three year old son, Aaron.

Not so much a father-son road trip story, this book actually sets out to profile each farm, the individuals who bring them to life, their chosen crops, how they survive, and in many cases - how they thrive. Not surprisingly, we are introduced to a cast of renegades and independent thinkers like the Lanes, a couple of aging hippies who decided it was a good idea to grow fruit an hour west of Madison, Wisconsin despite the extreme weather. Their Future Fruit Farm is the only commercial pear orchard in Wisconsin - 6,000 fruit trees in a vast sea of dairy farms.

It's not all rolling fields and tractors. There is a chapter on space-constrained Eli Zabar and his half-acre of rooftop food gardens in Manhattan. Or the two 1-acre plots below the Cabrini-Green sixteen story housing project in Chicago. You begin to realize quite quickly that it is time for more of us to think outside the children's book image of a farm - all red barns and grain silos. There are some 6,000 acres of vacant plots of land within the 200 square miles of the city of Chicago alone. The book not only profiles exciting farms and individuals, more importantly it helps redefine the way people think about farms, farming, and what is possible.

As if that wasn't enough, the book looks smart too. It is full of big, straight-forward, real photography by the author. And what are you to do with the bounty? Each section is punctuated by a cluster of delicious sounding recipes that in many cases were shared by the farmers themselves.

One of the recipes that jumped out at me was titled Cele's Old-Fashioned Pear Cake. It is a rustic, homey, unfussy cake originally made by Ellen Lane's mom. Her mom would make make this cake with Italian prune plums, but because Ellen and her husband have the aforementioned pear orchard, it makes sense that they would make it with their own Seckel pears.

I lucked out and stumbled on the prettiest red star krimson pears at the market today. Their skins imparted big kisses of color all across the top of this cake. A little dusting of powdered sugar made it look even more inviting. The cake was simple and came together in less than five minutes, then right into the oven. I kept thinking it would make a fantastic breakfast cake because of the fruit and it being frosting-free. Or even better, it would make a good picnic cake because it is sturdy enough to slice and then eat with your fingers without making much of a mess - just a few crumbs for the ants.

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Cele's Old-Fashioned Pear Cake Recipe

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 2 tablespoons melted
All-purpose flour for dusting
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
6 firm but ripe small pears such as Seckel, cored and cut lengthwise into quarters

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Brush a 9-inch round springform pan with the 2 tablespoons melted butter, and dust the pan with a thin, even layer of flour, tapping out the excess. Set aside.

Whisk together the whole-wheat pastry flour, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat together the 1/2 cup butter and the sugar on high speed until pale, light, and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the eggs, and beat again until well combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the dry ingredients just until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and neatly arrange the peat quarters on top, skin side up. Bake for about 1 hour, or until the top is nicely browned and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let the cake cool for 10 to 15 minutes before removing it from the pan.

Note: to prepare the original version with the Italian prune plums, use 12 plums, pitted and halved, in place of the pears.

Serves 10.

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This is the famous Marian Burros recipe, with pears and whole wheat flour, right? It’s excellent and very versatile…


I think we are sitting at a picnic table having lunch?


One other thing I should mention about the the cake. I took a bit of artistic license and went ahead and baked it in one of my pretty vintage pans.
Sometimes, when I look at a recipe I can kind-of tell how much I can get away with. In this case, I greased up the pan really well and gave it a solid dusting of flour. It is the kind of rustic cake that is perfect to serve right in the pan, so I just sliced it up and the cake came out no problem.
It was also a sturdy enough cake that if I needed to get it out of the pan intact, it would have been fine.
Not something I would have tried with a cheesecake 🙂 -h


Serendipity…I am going to hear Michael speak this Thursday night at Rhode Island School of Design, my alma mater. Can’t wait.
He’s going to read from his new book, muse, and sign.


The book sounds great–I’m going to order it from my library today.

mary g

Nori: Yeah, she does. I had the pleasure of watching Heidi shoot an ad hoc pic at a picnic, and when it appeared on her blog, I was Blown Away! She’s ::All That::


Heidi, do you do your own photos for this blog? They’re gorgeous! Makes me want to quit my job and be a food photographer … kind of. 🙂


I loved the Harmony Valley story. It was great to see how each individual put their stamp on the farms they created…Harmony Valley sounded like a precision operation. They contrasted Harmony Valley with the more free-form story of the Lane’s. I imagine it is very much like peeking in someones closet – some people are neat, orderly, dare I say – color coded….others, not so much 😉
Do you know what page you are on, or what the picture looks like? It really is a beautiful book. -h


Hey, I’m in that book! I haven’t seen it yet but I hear there’s a picture of me at Harmony Valley Farm. I was the cook there one summer. Best job ever. I’m also really good friends with Ellen and Bob Lane. They are also the only organic orchard in Wisconsin.


Heidi, one of my farming girlfriends, Kirsten, loaned me Michael Ableman’s book, On Good Land, and it is a treasure. He’s such a lucid writer.
Kirsten worked at Ableman’s farm (Fairview Gardens), where the book is set. It’s about the urban encroachment on a farm in Southern California. I’m intending to visit sometime this autumn, hopefully sooner than later.
Thank you for the heads up to his newest work. I can’t believe I missed all his appearances in San Francisco last month. Drat!


I look forward to trying this recipe. I imagin e it would go well with many kinds of stone fruit , as well as apples.


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