2. Raise the heat to medium-high, stir in the sugar, and cook for 1 minute, or until the sugar has turned thick and amber colored (do not let it burn). Stir in the lemon zest, remove the pan from the heat, and stand back as you add 2 tablespoons of water to the pan as a precaution against burning. Gently stir in.
3. Transfer the pears to a bowl, cool for 10 minutes, blend in the lemon juice, and cool.
To make the Cognac Sauce (heat before serving):
1. Make the caramel sauce by combining the sugar and corn syrup and 3 tablespoons water in a 3-quart saucepan. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a bubble. Do not stir at all, but do use a heatproof brush dipped in water to wash down the sides of the pan often.
2. Once the bubbles are clear, large, and shiny, the syrup will start to color. Cook it another 30 seconds, or until it's the color of caramel candy, but not dark brown. Immediately pull the pan off the heat and stand back while you pour in the cream. The syrup will fiercely bubble up and then settle down. Stir in the butter, Cognac, vanilla, and salt. Scrape the sauce into a medium metal or heatproof bowl, cool, and refrigerate it if holding for more than a few hours.
To make the cake:
1. Butter and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan.
2. Marinate the dried fruits: In a medium bowl, combine the raisins, dried pears and apricots, and Cognac and let stand for several hours or overnight.
3. Puree about one quarter of the caramelized pears, then combine with the remaining caramelized pears in a bowl, and set aside.
4. Make the cake: Place a sifter or large strainer over a large bowl. Add the sifted flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and cloves and sift into the bowl. Believe it or not, sifting doesn't mix dry ingredients well enough. So to be sure they will evenly leaven and flavor the cake, stir them several times with a whisk. Set the dry ingredients aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or using a handheld electric beater and a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times. Add the sugar and continue beating at medium speed for 3 to 5 minutes, or until very fluffy. Still at medium speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time, until each is just blended.
6. In this step it's crucial not to overbeat the batter or the cake will toughen. Set the mixer at low speed and beat in about one third of the sifted dry ingredients (flour, leaveners, and spices) from step 4 until just blended. Add half of the buttermilk and beat only to blend. Repeat with half of the remaining dry ingredients, then the last of the buttermilk and, finally, the rest of the dry ingredients. Do not overbeat.
7. By hand, using a big spatula, fold into the batter the caramelized pears and all of their liquid, along with the almonds and the dried fruits with any of their liquid. Fold only long enough to blend. Turn into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour.
8. Reduce the heat to 325°F and bake for 1 more hour, or until a tester inserted about an inch from the rim of the pan comes out clean. The center of the cake should still be moist. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, turn the cake out onto the rack, and cool for 2 to 8 hours. Wrap tightly and keep at room temperature for at least 1 day.
9. To serve, set the cake on a platter and spoon some of the warmed caramel-Cognac sauce over it so it runs down the sides and puddles on the platter. Pass the remaining sauce at the table.
From The Splendid Table's® How to Eat Weekends: New Recipes, Stories & Opinions from Public Radio's Award-Winning Food Show by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2011). Copyright© 2011 by American Public Media. Photographs copyright© 2011 by Ellen Silverman. Part of the Winter Holiday Dinner Menu.
"Stop thinking that you have to be a chef in your own kitchen," says Ruth Reichl, author of My Kitchen Year.