This dessert recipe is incredibly simple and adaptable—you can use just about any fruit you have on hand. The combination of pears and ginger is lovely in the wintertime. Come springtime try rhubarb or strawberries. Peaches or blueberries shine in the summer, and apples in the fall. If you don't love the taste of ginger, substitute an equal amount of cinnamon or 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom. When serving the cake, you can flip it over to show off the fruit or keep it right-side up so the fruit at the bottom is a surprise.

EatingWell.com, November 2022

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Credit: Ali Redmond

Recipe Summary

active:
15 mins
total:
1 hr 30 mins
Servings:
12

Nutrition Profile:

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How Another Family's Recipe Brought My Community Together

Several years ago, I spotted something that belonged to an ex-boyfriend in my kitchen drawer. On a yellow index card in unfamiliar handwriting was the recipe for surprise pie, a speciality of his Virginian family.

Surprise pie gets its name from a layer of fruit—the index card suggests canned peaches in syrup—stirred into a batter of butter, milk, sugar and self-rising flour. The cake puffs as it bakes, hiding the fruit inside. On a whim, I made one in my New York City kitchen with a pint of blueberries I'd bought at the farmers' market earlier that afternoon.

It was delicious, the perfect vehicle for ripe summer fruit. And so, I started making surprise pies regularly. I tinkered with the recipe over the years, swapping in apricots or plums, adding citrus zest plus spices like cardamom or nutmeg, and using baking powder and salt instead of self-rising flour. I made versions in different-shaped pans, and sometimes put in so much fruit the pie cratered around it, spoiling the surprise but adding juicy flavor and texture.

Eventually, I made so many iterations that I began to wonder about the origins of the recipe. Surprise pie is so crowd-pleasing and accessible, I figured it must be a widespread cultural phenomenon, like baseball or the Beyoncé catalog.

Surprisingly, it isn't. In the 10-plus years that I've been baking surprise pie, I've never seen anything similar on a menu or in a cookbook. Online search results for the term "surprise pie" include meringue-like desserts with whipped egg whites, no-bake cream cheese pies and lattice-crusted cranberry pies. Historically, surprise pies took a darker turn. In 16th-century France, royal courts reportedly prepared cage-like pastries that were served with live fowl inside. When a diner cut into the dough, a flock of birds would fly out.

Confident that my surprise pie experimentations were nowhere near that unsettling, I still felt uneasy taking ownership of the dish. Is it OK to make another family's recipe without ever telling them? Was I unwittingly committing some sort of dessert erasure?

Then, in March 2020, the pandemic arrived, priorities shifted, and people who had never so much as held a whisk began fervently baking. Those with the means to stay indoors started nurturing sourdough starters and Instagramming banana breads as a way to quell their nerves and fill their hours. As the weeks stretched into months, a friend who was quarantining alone in a small Brooklyn apartment asked if I could teach her something to bake over Zoom. "What's an easy dessert I can make with stuff I already have in my fridge?" she asked.

I felt honored to share the surprise pie recipe with her, explaining how I'd come across it by chance and how versatile it could be. My friend baked it a lot that spring and summer, occasionally leaving wrapped slices outside her door for her neighbors and mail carrier. It was a source of community and connection, a sweet Southern comfort food for scared New Yorkers.

To me, this is what makes cooking so special. It feeds us physically and emotionally, and adapts in tandem with our lives and circumstances. While I firmly believe that it's important to contextualize what and how we cook, like all cultural expressions, food is forever evolving. The version of surprise pie that I like to bake in the fall has gingered pears in lieu of canned peaches and some whole-wheat flour in the mix, but it's a proud descendant of its forebear.

Ingredients

Ingredient Checklist

Directions

Instructions Checklist
  • Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan, line with parchment and then butter the parchment.

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  • Combine pears, 2 teaspoons sugar, lemon juice and ginger in a shallow bowl; toss to coat. Let stand at room temperature to macerate.

  • Combine all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Add the remaining 1 cup sugar and stir. Add milk, stirring just to combine. 

  • Pour melted butter into the prepared pan. Pour the batter into the pan. Do not stir. Using clean hands, lightly place the macerated pears on top of the batter. Do not stir. Drizzle any remaining syrup over the pears.

  • Bake until the cake is evenly browned and the edges are pulling away from the pan, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, at least 20 minutes, before serving. Sift confectioners' sugar over the top, if desired.

Equipment

9-inch round cake pan; parchment paper

Nutrition Facts

1 slice
160 calories; protein 2g; carbohydrates 29g; dietary fiber 1g; sugars 20g; added sugar 17g; fat 5g; saturated fat 3g; mono fat 1g; cholesterol 12mg; vitamin a iu 155IU; vitamin b3 niacin 1mg; vitamin c 1mg; vitamin d iu 10IU; folate 26mg; vitamin k 1mg; sodium 296mg; calcium 62mg; iron 1mg; magnesium 9mg; phosphorus 50mg; potassium 65mg; niacin equivalents 1mg; selenium 5mcg.
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