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Three's a Charm: Pear Desserts for the Holidays

Change things up by putting another seasonal fruit on your table

Lizzie Munro
Posted: November 26, 2013

In recent years, I’ve made a habit of bending Thanksgiving traditions. For my family, it’s fitting: My dad emigrated from London to New York exactly one week before the Beatles kicked off their first U.S. tour, and he grew up eating roast beef and trifle, not turkey and apple pie.

I’m staunchly loyal to bread stuffing and mashed potatoes, and of course to the iconic poultry centerpiece—though this year, a capon will grace our table rather than a turkey. Desserts, however, are among the dishes I change from year to year. I often make two of them at least a day in advance. Typically, one is traditional. The other? Not so much.

Pears make an appearance on my holiday table even more often than apples, so I decided to focus on Boscs for this column. This variety of pear is particularly good for baking and poaching. Since pears are very much in season during the holidays, there’s still plenty of time to try out these recipes even if they don’t make it into your Thanksgiving spread.

The first recipe is for scarlet poached pears, a not-too-sweet alternative to the holiday's classic pies. Served with vanilla ice cream, the deep red pears are topped with crunchy green pistachios and candied Meyer lemon slices, making a pleasant end to an indulgent meal. This dessert is a little on the tart side thanks to the spiced pomegranate poaching liquid, which is reduced to a syrup and drizzled on top. But this flavor profile makes the dish a great option for wine pairing. One potential match is a bright, velvety Recioto della Valpolicella. Made from pressed grapes that have been dried on mats, the wine has concentrated flavors and a viscosity that stands up well to the tart pomegranate and citrus notes.

Another dessert that I make often is a pear tart with a slightly puffed, almond-flavored filling called frangipane. Ubiquitous in France, it’s one of my dad’s favorites—he first tasted it while working as a photographer’s assistant in Paris—and I’ve made it enough times to warrant experimenting with some variations. I added chocolate to the crust and filling to see if it might expand the options for pairing. Specifically, I wanted to see if the chocolate, along with the sweet, nutty filling, might work well with a tawny Port. As it turned out, a Tokaji dessert wine from Hungary, made with botrytized grapes, did the best job of marrying the tart’s contrasting flavors. The notes of spice in the wine, along with its high acidity, complemented the fruit in the tart, brought out its cocoa character and balanced its richness.

For the final recipe, I chose a pear cake. I had a relatively inexpensive bottle of Sauternes in my wine arsenal, the Château du Grand Carretey 2010, priced at a modest $30 for a 750ml bottle. A successful pairing can often be made by cooking with the wine that you’re planning to drink. As such, a mere one-third of a cup of the wine went into the cake, as did fresh thyme, browned butter and several pears. This particular Sauternes, which features a light, musky finish, complemented the mild thyme flavor in the dessert, while the unctuous, creamy texture matched well with the tender cubes of pear studded throughout the cake.

Recipe Photo Gallery

Photographs by Lizzie Munro; click any thumbnail image to open the slideshow.


Scarlet Poached Pears with Candied Meyer Lemon, Ice Cream and Pistachios

Pair with a Recioto della Valpolicella, such as Monte Faustino Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2008 (91 points, $42/500ml)

Red beets contribute to the pears’ deep red color without affecting their flavor. Making the pears a day ahead and letting them rest in the poaching liquid will deepen the color.

  • 1 large or 2 small red beets, peeled and cut into 1-inch wedges
  • 1 quart of tart pomegranate juice
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • zest and juice of one lemon
  • vanilla bean
  • 1 to 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 6 Bosc pears, still a bit firm, peeled
  • candied Meyer lemons (see recipe below), for serving
  • vanilla ice cream, for serving
  • 1/2 cup roasted, unsalted chopped pistachios, for serving

1. In a large saucepan set over medium heat, combine the beets, pomegranate juice, sugar, lemon zest and juice, vanilla bean and cinnamon sticks with 2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugar. Add the pears and poach for 20 to 30 minutes, until the pears are tender but not soft. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the pears to completely cool in their liquid. (Transfer to the refrigerator if making the pears one day ahead.)

2. Remove the pears from the poaching liquid and strain half of the liquid into a small saucepan. (The other half can be discarded.) To make the pear syrup, cook the liquid over medium-high heat for about 5 to 10 minutes, until it is reduced by two-thirds and coats the back of a spoon. Allow the syrup to cool.

3. To serve, cut each pear in half and remove the core with a melon baller. Garnish each halved pear with a scoop of ice cream, Meyer lemon slices and a spoonful or two of pistachios. Top with some of the syrup and serve. Serves 6.

For the candied Meyer lemons

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 to 3 Meyer lemons, depending on size

Heat the sugar with 1 cup of water over medium-high heat in a medium-sized saucepan. Slice the lemons into 1/8-inch-thick slices. When the sugar and water are boiling, reduce the heat to low and add the lemon slices. Simmer for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the slices and place onto a wire rack set over a sheet of parchment to cool. Transfer the lemons to a small container and refrigerate if not using right away. (These can be made several days ahead.)


Chocolate, Almond and Pear Tart

Pair with a Tokaji, such as Chateau Dereszla Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2007 (95 points, $40/500ml)

The crust for this tart can, and probably should, be made a day ahead. The pears can be poached in advance as well, and if you’re really in a pinch, feel free to use canned pear halves in place of freshly poached fruit.

For the tart:

  • 1 cup whole roasted, unsalted almonds
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tart shell, prepared and cooled (see recipe below)
  • 3 poached pears (see recipe below), or canned pears
  • powdered sugar for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until chopped. Add in the sugar and process until the almonds are finely ground. Add in the chocolate and butter and blend until combined. Add in the egg and blend until just combined. Spread the mixture into the prepared tart shell.

2. Halve the poached pears lengthwise and remove the seeds using a melon baller. Working on one pear half at a time, slice the pears crosswise into 1/4-inch slices, keeping the slices together. Slide the knife underneath the pear and press down gently to fan the slices. Lift each fanned pear half onto the tart and carefully slide it off the knife, directly onto the filling, with the tapered end of the pear facing the middle of the tart. Repeat until you have 5 or 6 pear halves on top. (You might have one pear half left over, depending on the size of your tart shell.)

3. Transfer the tart to the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the filling is puffed and set. Allow the tart to cool on a wire rack, and serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 8.

For the poached pears:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • zest and juice of one lemon
  • one cinnamon stick
  • 3 Bosc pears, still a bit firm

1. In a medium-sized saucepan, combine one quart of water with the sugar, lemon juice and zest, and cinnamon stick. Place it over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer.

2. Peel the pears and place them whole into the poaching liquid. Simmer very gently for 20 to 30 minutes, until tender but not too soft. Allow the pears to cool in the liquid and set aside. (This step can be done a day ahead of time.)

For the tart shell:

  • 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 stick of very cold or frozen butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing the pan
  • 1 egg, lightly whisked to break the yolk
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons ice water

1. Combine the flour, cocoa powder, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse until combined. Scatter the pieces of cold butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely ground to the size of small peas. Add in the egg and pulse until just combined. Add in the water, about one tablespoon at a time, and pulse until the mixture begins to come together and looks like wet sand. When the dough can be pinched together easily and holds its shape, turn it out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and gather the dough into a ball. Press down gently into a disk, cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour, or overnight.

2. Grease a 9- to 10-inch tart pan with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a 12-inch circle. Place it into the prepared pan and fold over any excess to reinforce the sides of the tart in order to make them thicker than the bottom. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Just before placing the tart shell in the oven, remove the plastic wrap and poke holes in the bottom of the shell with the prongs of a fork. Place a sheet of parchment paper on top and scatter either uncooked rice or baking beads on top of the parchment to hold the crust in place. Blind bake, or prebake, the tart for 15 to 20 minutes, until the crust has set, thereby preventing it from getting soggy when the filling is added. Remove the parchment and rice or baking beads and bake for an additional 5 minutes until the tart shell is lightly browned and dry. Cool on a wire rack until ready to use. (This step can be completed a day ahead of time.)


Pear Cake with Sauternes, Thyme and Browned Butter

Pair with a Sauternes, such as Château du Grand Carretey Sauternes 2010 (88 points, $30)

This is an easy cake to make, but be sure to line the bottom of the pan with parchment. The cake doesn’t have a tremendous amount of butter and sticks easily.

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, sliced into 10 pieces, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing the pan
  • 10 sprigs of fresh thyme, plus 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup Sauternes
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 Bosc pears, still a bit firm
  • powdered sugar, for garnish
  • crème fraîche, for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Butter the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan with 1 1/2-inch sides and line the entire bottom with a round of parchment paper. Butter the paper and the sides of the pan very well and set aside.

2. Place the stick of butter, cut into pieces, and 10 sprigs of thyme into a small saucepan set over medium-low heat. Cook the butter, stirring occasionally, until it turns a light tan color and becomes fragrant, about 5 minutes. (It’s normal for the butter to foam at this stage.) Remove from the heat immediately and allow it to cool to room temperature.

3. While the butter is cooling, place the cake flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Stir with a fork to combine.

4. When the butter has cooled, remove the thyme sprigs and discard. Pour the butter through a sieve into a medium bowl. Add in the sugar, the Sauternes, the 1/2 teaspoon of minced fresh thyme and the eggs, and whisk the ingredients together (do not overmix).

5. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour the butter mixture into the center. Stir gently with a wooden spoon or a spatula until the ingredients are just combined.

6. Peel the pears and cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. Fold the pears into the batter until evenly coated and scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes until a wooden skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and allow the cake to cool.

7. To remove the cake, run a sharp knife around the edges to release and turn out onto a plate. Place another plate on the bottom of the cake and turn once more to set the cake upright.

8. Dust with powdered sugar and serve warm or at room temperature with crème fraîche. Serves 8.

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