Monday, December 27, 2010

Poached Pear Cheesecake Loaded With Happy Memories

If you are anything like me, you have a mile-long list of recipes that you’re dying to try. In fact, there aren’t enough meals in the year to work my way through all of the recipes on my Must Make list. But sometimes life spins wildly out of control and I need to go back to an old familiar favorite to feel anchored again. My Poached Pear Cheesecake is one of those recipes that make me feel that all is right with the world again.

It’s been one of the most unusual weeks of my life, largely because of the “60 Minutes” story that aired last Sunday, featuring me and the small handful of others with a rare and extreme autobiographical memory. The filming began more than a year ago and was completed in the spring, and though the story was expected to air in the fall, we wouldn’t actually know the exact airdate until just a few days before. Fall came and went without incident, but December 19th turned out to be the big day in which the two-segment “Endless Memory” piece was finally broadcast to an audience of nearly 19 million viewers. (You can check it out here and here, if you'd like.) I was thrilled out of my mind but, not having been allowed to see it ahead of time, I was also a nervous wreck.

Yet dear friends and family surrounded me when I saw the show for the first time, and we turned the whole evening into a celebration. Julie threw a viewing party for me in her beautiful apartment, and when she offered to host the party, the first thing she did was plan a menu composed of dishes that had particular emotional significance for me. (And you wonder why we’re great friends?!) I was on dessert duty, as per usual, and I knew I wanted to do something involving poached pears.  Julie was an angel and made all of the savory party food using Kitchen Fiddler recipes, especially those loaded with great memories for me.

Among other dishes, there was Marinated Goat Cheese with Lemon and Thyme, always a huge hit when I’ve served it at some hilarious birthday parties over the years. A single bite of my Sweet Potato and Peanut Soup conjures up the amazing January 2006, a month in which I was fueled by endless bowls of that vibrant soup while I radically transformed my apartment and, subsequently, my life. And I really wanted to serve my Arugula Fennel Salad with Pistachio and Toasted Breadcrumbs inspired by the one I had at Zuni Café in San Francisco in August 2009. I had sat alone at my table that afternoon with my notebook and wrestled with the question, “What would I do if I were unafraid of failing?” The first thing I wrote was, “I should contact the UC Irvine neuroscientists who are studying people with superior autobiographical memory, for I think they need to know about me too.” As I ate my arugula salad and drafted a letter to the memory research team, I had no idea what was in store for me. In my wildest dreams, I certainly could not have imagined that writing that letter would set me on such an incredible path of discovery and deep affirmation, not to mention having an opportunity to share this memory gift on such a huge scale as I did last Sunday night.

It was an absolute trip to finally watch the “Endless Memory” program for that first time, and I was so impressed by the way the producers wove our countless hours of filmed interviews into a cohesive narrative piece. I think my happiest memory of the evening was watching my Little Chef staring at the large television with saucer-wide eyes and then looking back at me with his mouth agape, as though he couldn’t believe his baking buddy Aunt Louise was actually on television while also being in the same room with him.

After the show was over and the bubbly was flowing freely, I whipped up some Chocolate Toasts and brought out the Poached Pear Cheesecake that I’d made for the party. This stunning cake has been in my repertoire since 1993 when I acquired The Book of Cheesecakes by Steven Wheeler, a slim little volume of fantastic recipes that really pack a punch. The poached pear cheesecake was one of the first recipes I tried from that book, and it quickly became a major favorite amongst my college friends.

The cheesecake itself is a light affair, made with a modest quantity of cream cheese and brightened with plain yogurt and fresh lemon zest too. But what elevates this graham-cracker-crusted cheesecake to new culinary heights are the wine-poached pears on top. Oh, they’re gorgeous. Deeply suffused garnet on the outside, pale and cream-colored on the inside, these drunken pears are simultaneously bold and bashful, and they will make your taste buds smile.

Once upon a time, this was the cake that made me truly excited about creating memorable desserts, as though it said to me, “You are capable of doing something very unusual that will fill many people with unexpected great delight.” I know that’s a lot to ask from a cheesecake, but seriously, it’s not one you’re likely to encounter on an average day. It has the distinction of being the first cake I was ever paid to make once upon a time, and I’ve been commissioned to create it countless times since for many festive occasions. I even made this cake for my brother’s wedding celebration. And it felt particularly right to make this poached pear beauty on the night in which millions of people discovered that I was capable of doing something else far more unusual too.

Adapted from a recipe in The Book of Cheesecakes by Steven Wheeler

This is definitely one of my most requested cakes. Not only is it stunning to look at, it isn’t a dense sugar bomb that lands in your stomach with a thud the way some traditional cheesecakes do, and therefore it can provide an elegant ending for a rich meal. I’ve experimented with several varieties of pears for this cake, and I have found that D’Anjou pears are ideal for this recipe, as their texture holds up well in the poaching process. Make sure to use pears that are ripe but still a bit firm. If they’re overly ripe, they will fall apart when you poach them and it will be a big slippery mess trying to arrange them on top of the finished cheesecake.

For the poached pears:
2-1/2 cups full-bodied fruity red wine (I usually use a zinfandel or shiraz)
2-1/2 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
several whole cloves
the zest of half a lemon, peeled with a vegetable peeler into long wide strips
5 medium-sized firm pears, peeled (preferably D’Anjou)

For the crust:
1-3/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
6 tablespoons melted butter

For the filling:
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
finely grated zest of half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
a pinch of ground cloves
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

Prepare the pears at least 3 hours before starting the rest of the cheesecake. Combine the wine, water, sugar, lemon peel and spices in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add pears and simmer 25 minutes or until pears are just tender. Cool pears in syrup until ready to use for the cake. The longer the pears sit in the poaching liquid, the more they will have a chance to soak up the flavors and rich plummy color of the red wine syrup. This will make for a more dramatic presentation.

Lightly butter the bottoms and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Combine the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter in a large bowl and add the melted butter, stirring until the crumbs hold together. Press the crust onto the bottom of the prepared pan; set aside while you make the filling.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Beat the softened cream cheese in a large bowl until smooth. Add the eggs, sugar and yogurt, beating well until smooth. Beat in the lemon juice and zest, cinnamon, cloves, and flour. Cut 2 of the poached pears into 1/2-inch pieces, and stir into cheese mixture. Spoon filling into prepared crust. Bake in preheated oven 50 minutes or until set. Cool completely.

Quarter and core the remaining poached pears. Make several lengthwise slices in each pear quarter, making sure not to cut all the way through the top so that it will be easier to work with. Arrange the pears in a fan shape on top of the cooled cheesecake. Remove the sides of the springform pan before cutting the cake into slices. Makes 8 to 10 servings.


M.K. said...

Hi -- recently found your blog through your friend (I think?), Amy Henry, who writes for World. Enjoyed the 2 segments from 60 Min. -- esp. your response at the end, that it makes you want to live each day with more deliberation and meaning. I love that!!! Love your food blog too. That cake looks delectable :)

Shari said...

Love this entry!!! So happy for you, and the cheesecake looks AMAZING!!!!!

Maria said...

Hello! I found your blog last week (through an old comment you left over at Smitten Kitchen), and read through your posts with interest. This cheesecake recipe called my attention! and so I made it today for the first time.

can I just say, it is *delicious*. Thank you so much for putting it out there for people like me to discover!
It feels simultaneously rich and light, if that makes any sense... and is rather moreish, until one realises one is *entirely* full.

I wonder, what do you do with the liquid left over from poaching the pears? I drank a couple of glasses of it myself. It's slightly like a fruity, sugary mulled wine.

Finally - my presentation wasn't as neat as yours in your photos - I will have to work on that. (ponders reason to self for making cake again...).

You've also got me thinking about savoury oatmeal / porridge (I'm in the UK... hence porridge rather than oatmeal)