Monday, November 30, 2009

Poached Pears

The markets are teeming with a vast array of apples and pears right now, providing a visual feast as well as one for the taste buds. I’m trying to take advantage of this bounty before it is replaced by a whole slew of winter citrus fruits. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've been chomping my way through every variety of apple and pear I can get my hands on these days.

But I were hard-pressed to choose between these two classic autumnal fruits when it comes to dessert, I would invariably go for a dessert involving pears over one with apples. I prefer eating my apples straight up, for I think they need no embellishment.  But pears resonate for me on a different level, especially when they’re poached.

I always think of pears as rather unassuming fruits on their own, but they easily turn into something special with just a little coaxing from a syrup made of wine, sugar and spices. Like a great character actor, a pear is willing and ready to take on different roles. Simmered in white wine and sugar with a little fresh lemon, this poached pear is understated and classy. It can stand on its own, needing nothing but a generous dollop of freshly whipped cream to complement it.  The white wine-poached pear can be an incredible supporting player when fanned over an almond-flavored tart or if layered between cream-filled crepes or delicate sponge cake, and I've never met a vanilla-based ice cream that was not enhanced by a few translucent slices of poached pear.

But poach it in a gutsy red zinfandel, this vibrantly hued pear becomes empowered by the wine, bold enough to take center stage. Pears are also versatile enough to embrace flavors such as ginger, vanilla or cardamom in the poaching liquid. Yet no matter what flavorings you add, I love that they still retain the very essence of their pear-ness.

I can never have too many fresh vanilla beans in my kitchen, for they are invaluable in creating a depth of flavor in desserts that vanilla extract never quite achieves. Imagine my great delight when my dad and grandma returned from a recent photography expedition in Indonesia and gave me a bag with 25 supple fragrant vanilla beans inside! I couldn't resist adding two of the vanilla pods to the poaching liquid for my most recent batch of pears. Happy day indeed!

A perfectly poached pear served whole is graceful on its own. It becomes even more elegant when it is sliced and fanned out atop a tart or a specialty cake. If you don’t have the time or the inclination for a major baking project like that, simply arrange the poached pear slices decoratively on a plate with a scoop of your favorite best-quality ice cream. This falls into the easy-yet-elegant dessert category, something that requires a minimal amount of work for a big pay-off. What’s not to love about that?

I don’t follow a strict recipe for the poaching liquid as I’m always playing around with flavors, but here is a basic template. Sometimes I replace the wine with all water if I’m using ginger or star anise instead of vanilla and want to intensify that particular flavor. I prefer using Anjou pears as I think they hold up best to the poaching process, but Bartlett pears will also work well. I love serving these with ginger ice cream or a high-quality vanilla bean ice cream, especially with a little bit of the reduced poaching liquid drizzled over the top.

3 cups dry white wine
1 cup water
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out
1 lemon, juice squeezed and a few strips of the yellow peel, removed with a vegetable peeler
4 firm-ripe Anjou pears, peeled, halved and cored

Good-quality vanilla ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream, for serving

Combine the wine, water, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds, and the lemon juice and peel in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the pear halves and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the pears are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Remove the pan from the heat and let the pears cool in the syrup, covered. Refrigerate the pears in the poaching liquid until you are ready to use them.  If you don’t eat them right away, the pears will keep for about 3 days.

To serve, remove the pears from the syrup. Cut each pear half into thin slices, taking care not to slice all the way through one end of the pear. Fan the slices out on a plate, top with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream.

Note: If you wish, once you remove the pears from the poaching liquid, you can boil this syrup down till it has reduced to about 1 cup, which will take approximately 15 to 20 minutes. This reduction will make a lovely sauce to spoon over your finished dessert. I highly recommend it.

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