In the holiday season it’s easy to be overwhelmed by rich desserts. We always make a Christmas trifle, but other than that we prefer our sweet calories in the form of berries or seasonal fruit such as pears, persimmons or tangerines. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for an occasional tart or two.
Poached pears are so common that it’s almost superfluous to give a recipe for them. They can be poached – whole, halved or sliced – in white or red wine, in simple syrup, or any other creative liquid of your choosing. As well as adding all manner of spices and herbs, you can top them with chocolate (the French then call it Poire Belle Hélène) or a myriad of ice creams or sorbets or the liqueur Poire William. So what does this recipe have to offer? Well, it’s our favorite way to poach pears and we took these really neat pictures that it seemed a pity to waste. I added a small pinch of saffron to the poaching liquid, mainly to give them their golden glow. It gives their flavor a slightly mysterious note.
4 firm (not too ripe) pears –
2 cups full-bodied white wine (chardonnay, viognier)
1/2 cup vanilla sugar (or 1/2 cup sugar and a stick of vanilla)
1 cinnamon stick
Water (enough to cover the pears)
Peel the pears, retaining the stem. (If you’re not going to cook them immediately, put them in acidulated water.) Put them in a pot, small enough to just hold them upright. Add the wine, sugar, cinnamon stick and enough water to just cover them. Poach until they pierce easily with a fork (10-15 minutes). Remove the pears and reduce the liquid until you have about half a cup, enough to glaze the pears. Serve as is, or with whipped cream or ice cream.
Pears also have a wonderful affinity for blue cheese. There is an old – and often quoted – Tuscan expression that says that a peasant will never tell you how well pears go with cheese. My husband finds this utterly charming, but the meaning has always baffled me. I suppose centuries ago it meant that the wily peasant could keep this delicious secret from the rich landowner.
A restaurant near where we live in the south of France makes a beautiful tart whose sliced pears radiate from the center alternating with slices of an ancient blue cheese, Forme d’Ambert. When it bakes, the cheese melts and flows around the pears and the resulting combination of crisp pastry, juicy pears and melting cheese is quite sublime. I make it using whatever good blue cheese is available.
I have to admit that baking is not my strong suit (Sam, on the other hand, loves to bake.) It’s not that I’m too lazy to make pastry–I do make it, but I’m just not very good at it. So I tend to buy pastry shells or frozen puff pastry, especially in France where the variety and quality is excellent.
Pear and Blue Cheese Tart
Serves 4 – 6
1 9″ pie shell
2-3 ripe pears
4 oz. blue cheese (Stilton, gorgonzola, roquefort or a good domestic blue)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Pre-bake the pie shell until it’s beginning to brown around the edges (about 15 minutes.) Let cool. In the meantime, peel the pears and slice them lengthwise into thirds, removing the cores. Slice each third crosswise, into thin slices, keeping the whole together. Place each section in the pie shell, fanning them out a bit. This sounds complicated but as the picture shows, it’s really quite simple. Slice the cheese into thin slices and tuck them between the pears, saving a few pieces to scatter on top. Bake until the crust is golden, the pears are cooked through and the cheese has melted. Serve immediately.
As for the walnut pie, we were given about a bushel of wonderful fresh walnuts in the fall. We have cracked them and eaten them, put them in salads, made pesto, and finally run out of ideas. Until we thought why not substitute them for pecans in a pie? The recipe is pretty standard for a pecan pie, and the walnut version is a not-so-sweet and pleasant change.
1 cup light corn syrup
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 9″ pie shell
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix first five ingredients until well blended. Stir in the walnuts. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake for about 45 minutes. When a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, the pie is done. Cool and enjoy!