Cooking in cast iron
I've been married for 22 years, and, while my husband and I are still going strong, those pots and pans we received as wedding gifts have seen better days. Recently, I popped into my local cookware emporium to replace a badly worn skillet, and boy was I shocked at what I found. All-Clad and Calphalon prices have increased at a higher rate than houses in the Hamptons.
Unwilling to part with $150 for a 10-inch skillet (I have to save for my own daughters' weddings, after all), I left empty-handed. A day later, shopping for light bulbs at the hardware store, I noticed a shelf of cast-iron cookware, including skillets in all sizes. The 10-inch size was priced at $16. For less than the cost of one high-end pan, I could buy a five-piece cast-iron cookware set.
When I went to lift the skillet, I reconsidered. The smallest pan in the set weighed as much as my poodle, about 12 pounds. Their heft contributes to their durability, but makes cast-iron cookware a bad choice if you move frequently. To save my back, I'd have to buy one pan at a time. So I just got the skillet.
I had heard that cast iron requires "seasoning" before use, which means coating the inside of a new pan with a thin layer of oil and then placing it in a 350-degree oven for an hour. This bonds the oil to the pan's surface, making it nonstick. Wipe away the oil with a paper towel, and your pan is ready to use. I have to admit that I didn't season my pan, because for the low price of $16, mine came preseasoned. I'm happy to report that it was, indeed, nonstick from the get-go.
I also had heard that cast iron requires special cleaning to preserve its nonstick surface. But this just means you can't scrub it with an abrasive pad or cleaner, or you'll scrub away the seasoning. Use a sponge and some mild dish soap instead. It's best to wash your pan right away. Soaking it in the sink will encourage rust. For the same reason, dry your pan well right after washing it. If you go at it with steel wool or a wire brush by accident, don't freak out. You haven't ruined your new pan. Just season it again, and it will be fine. And if you take it out of the cabinet next week and notice it has rusted, just scrub the rust away with steel wool and re-season.
Realizing that my pan could go from cooktop to oven, I decided to make a skillet cake, sautéing some pears and sprinkling some biscuit dough over them before baking. It was easy and old-fashioned, just the kind of recipe I'll hand down to my daughters with their heirloom cookware.
Cast-iron pans are famous for retaining heat. Mine kept my cake nice and warm until after dinner. But do be aware that this kind of metal will stay hot for a while, and be careful when picking yours up. Use oven mitts, even if it's been sitting off heat for a few minutes.
PEAR AND ALMOND SKILLET CAKE
For the pears:
2 tablespoons butter
4 pears, peeled, cored, and cut into thick slices
2 to 4 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
For the biscuit topping:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
21/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, cut into bits
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare the pears: Heat 4 tablespoons of butter in a 101/2-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pears and cook, turning occasionally, until they begin to soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger and salt and cook, turning frequently, until sugar is dissolved and pears are soft and the liquid in the pan has thickened, another 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat.
2. Make the topping: Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, butter and sugar in the work bowl of a food processor, and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. With the motor running, add the milk and vanilla, and process just until a rough dough forms.
3. Scatter dough over warm pears. Sprinkle almonds over dough. Bake until topping is golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer skillet to wire rack and let cake cool for 20 minutes. Cut into wedges.
Makes 6 servings.