Published November 17, 2020 by Bowdoin Magazine

Upside-Down Pear Cake

Recipe by Lei Shishak ’97

Autumn and winter are peak seasons for pear varietals. Lei says she loves this cake because it presents pears in two delicious ways: the caramelized pear layer on top and the fresh chunks of pear nestled in the cake. The olive oil cake has a flavorful blend of cardamom, clove, orange and vanilla which complement pear nicely. If you can’t find cardamom pods, you can omit or use a cinnamon stick and whole nutmeg in place of the pods to infuse the milk.

An image of a sliced pear

Makes one nine-inch round cake


1/3 cup whole milk

6 cardamom pods, crushed

2 cloves, crushed

1/3 cup brown sugar

¼ cup salted butter

2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided

2 large Bosc pears

1 large egg

1/3 cup sugar

¼ cup olive oil

1 teaspoon orange zest

¾ cup all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt


Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a nine-inch round cake pan and set aside.

Combine the milk, cardamom, and cloves in a small pot over high heat. Bring just to a boil, remove from heat, and let steep until you need it.

In another small pot, combine the brown sugar, butter, and 1 teaspoon of the vanilla over high heat. Boil for thirty seconds, stirring constantly, and then carefully pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan. Tilt the pan to ensure the mixture evenly coats the bottom.

Peel the pears and cut them in half. Remove the cores and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices. Arrange enough of the slices in a concentric pattern to cover the bottom of the caramel-coated pan.  Roughly chop the remaining pear slices, approximately 1 cup, and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, sugar, oil, orange zest, and remaining 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Strain the infused milk, discarding the solids, and stir the milk into the egg mixture until blended. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and chopped pears and stir until all the ingredients are incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out the top, using a knife or spatula. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the center is set. Let the cake cool for a few minutes, and use a knife to carefully loosen the sides before inverting it onto a serving plate.

Did You Know? In Spain, they say es la pera—“this is the pear”—or es la pera limonera, which has a rhyme kind of like “the bee’s knees,” when they want to say something is great. Both are equivalent to “This is awesome!”

Lei Shishak ’97 majored in biochemistry at Bowdoin and had intended to continue her science studies in graduate school at NYU, but life led her instead to the chemistry of cooking. After attending the Culinary Institute of America and working as a pastry chef, she founded Sugar Blossom Bake Shop in San Clemente, California, and has written multiple cookbooks.

Bowdoin Magazine Fall 2020 cover featuring Daniel Minter’s painting “A Morning Pond”


This story first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.