THE PEAR has a split personality. On one hand, it is so delicate that chefs try everything to prevent its flavor from completely disappearing when making pear desserts. On the other hand, pears are paired with such strong flavors as chocolate, caramel, raspberry sauce, red wine and even roquefort or gorgonzola cheese.
This contradiction, however, may be only apparent. Unlike many fruits, pears lack acidity, accounting for their subtle taste, but also explaining why they marry so well with most other flavors--there is no chance of a clash.
The paleness of pears has led French chefs to match them with sauces of warm colors, such as dark chocolate sauce for Pears He'le ne and ruby-red raspberry sauce for Pears Melba. When used in good measure, these "aggressive" sauces also prevent pear desserts from being bland.
Several precautions ensure flavorful pear desserts. First, choose pears that are ripe and fragrant, but still firm, not overripe and mushy. Second, poach the pears, as they will discolor if left raw. And, when poaching, leave them whole or, at most, cut in half.
The pears most suited to poaching are bartlett, anjou and bosc. Although red bartlett pears are beautiful in a fruit bowl, they offer no special advantages over less-colorful varieties for cooking.
If pears are cut in small pieces, most of their flavor disappears into the poaching syrup. Even if they are to be diced later, they are cooked in large pieces, very gently and briefly, so they won't become too soft. Once poached, they are carefully handled, like all cooked fruit, so they won't lose their shape.
Unlike many other fruits, pears are usually not pure'ed for desserts such as bavarian cream, mousse or souffle', but rather are cut in chunks after being poached, then folded into the creamy mixture. Their elusive taste could be lost if they were pure'ed and mixed with other ingredients. For this reason, good pear ice cream with plenty of pear taste is very difficult to make. One partial solution to this problem is to add expensive pear alcohol or pear liqueur (poire williams), which gives a concentrated pear taste, but one that is somewhat different from that of fresh pears.
One of the best ways to prepare pears is to poach them in wine. The wine lends a pleasant acidity and, if red wine is used, a beautiful color as well. Both French and Italian cooks are very fond of this dessert and, in making it, take advantage of the variety of wines with which both countries are blessed. They use white, red or rose' wines, sweet or dry wines, straight or cut with water. Sometimes fortified wines like port or sherry are preferred; because of their strong character, they are usually mixed with water. Citrus zests and spices such as cinnamon and cloves add interest to the poaching wine, which becomes a light, refreshing sauce for the pears. The multitude of versions of pears in wine lends support to the opinion that it is perhaps the ideal pear dessert, an easy solution to the cook's problems. And, like many good ideas and fine dishes, it is the simplest as well. PEARS ALMA (6 servings)
The color of the pears will be light pink if they are poached a day ahead and left overnight in their syrup. For poaching: 6 pears, ripe but firm 3 cups water 1 1/4 cups port wine 3/4 cup sugar Zest of 1 orange Ground toasted almonds: 1/2 cup slivered almonds 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar Chantilly cream: 1 cup whipping cream 2 teaspoons sugar 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
To poach the pears: Combine the water, 1 cup port and the sugar in a medium saucepan. Grate in the orange zest. Bring to a boil, stirring. Remove from the heat. Peel the pears and halve them lengthwise. With the point of the peeler, remove the flower end and the core of each pear, including the long stringy section that continues to the stem. Bring the port syrup to a simmer and add the pear halves. Cover pears with a small lid or plate to keep them submerged. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer 10 to 12 minutes or until the pears can be pierced easily with the point of a small knife. Leave to cool completely in the syrup. The pears can be poached two days ahead and kept in their syrup, covered, in the refrigerator.
With a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the pears to a deep serving dish. Boil the cooking liquid over medium heat, stirring often, until reduced to about 1 1/2 cups. Let cool to room temperature. Add 1/4 cup port and pour over the pears. Refrigerate until cold.
To prepare the ground toasted almonds: Mix the almonds and sugar in a small shallow metal baking pan. Toast in a 450-degree oven, stirring very often, about 10 minutes or until the almonds brown lightly and the sugar dissolves and browns. Be careful because the mixture burns easily. Transfer to a plate and leave to cool completely. Grind in a food processor or nut grinder, but leave the mixture slightly chunky.
To make chantilly cream: A few hours before serving, chill a bowl and beaters for whipping the cream. Whip the cream in the chilled bowl until it begins to thicken. Add the sugar and vanilla and continue whipping until stiff.
Serve the pears in the port syrup. Serve bowls of ground almonds and chantilly cream separately. PEARS BELLE HELENE (6 servings)
This classic recipe is now often called Pears Belle He'le ne, or pears of the beautiful Helen, because the dish is supposed to honor Helen of Troy. For poaching: Few strips lemon zest 1 lemon, halved 1 cup sugar 1 quart water 1 vanilla bean (optional) 6 medium pears (about 2 1/4 pounds), ripe but firm Rich chocolate sauce: 6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped 1/2 cup whipping cream For serving: 1 quart vanilla ice cream, made with real vanilla beans 12 candied violets (optional)
To poach the pears: Pare a few strips of lemon zest. Put them in a medium saucepan just large enough to contain the pears, and add the sugar, water and vanilla bean. Bring to a boil, stirring. Turn off the heat. Peel the pears and rub each with the cut lemon. With the point of the peeler, remove the flower end and the core of each pear but leave the stem on. Bring the syrup to a simmer and add the juice of 1/2 lemon. Add the pears and cover with a small lid or plate to keep them submerged. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer about 20 minutes or until the pears can be pierced easily with the point of a small knife. Leave to cool completely in the syrup. Refrigerate until cold. The pears can be poached two days ahead and kept in their syrup, covered, in the refrigerator.
To make the sauce, heat the chocolate in the cream in a heavy-based saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until smooth. The sauce can be prepared ahead and kept, covered, in the refrigerator.
A short time before serving, remove the pears from their syrup and set them on paper towels to drain. (*Hint: Leftover syrup can be reused to poach more pears or other fruit, such as peaches, nectarines or plums.) Heat the chocolate sauce, stirring, over low heat. If it is too thick, stir in 1 tablespoon syrup from the pears.
To serve, place a heaping spoonful or scoop of ice cream in each of six dessert dishes or glasses. Flatten the ice cream and set a whole pear on top. Decorate with candied violets. Serve the hot sauce separately.
Pears with ice cream and caramel sauce: Replace the chocolate sauce with the following caramel sauce: Dissolve 1 1/4 cups sugar in 3/4 cup water in a medium-size heavy pan over low heat, stirring. In another pan bring 1 cup heavy cream to a boil over medium heat. Keep the cream warm. Boil the sugar mixture over high heat without stirring, but skimming off the foam that forms from time to time, until the color of the mixture becomes light brown. Continue to cook the mixture over low heat until its color becomes a deep rich brown. Do not let it become very dark brown, or the sauce will have a burnt taste. Remove from the heat, stand back and stir in the hot cream, being very careful because the hot mixture will bubble and splash and can cause severe burns. Mix well. Return to low heat and stir while heating gently, just until the sauce is smooth. If it is too thick, stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons milk. Serve warm.
Pears Melba: Replace the chocolate sauce with the raspberry sauce from the following recipe. PEAR BAVARIAN CREAM WITH RASPBERRY SAUCE (4 to 5 servings)
The deep red sauce provides a dramatic contrast in color and flavor to the white, creamy dessert. Poached pears: Lemon zest 1 lemon, halved 1/2 cup sugar 2 1/2 cups water 1 vanilla bean (optional) 1 1/2 pounds pears (4 medium), ripe but firm Bavarian cream: 1 1/4 cups syrup from the pears 1 cup milk Vanilla bean from poaching pears or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1 envelope gelatin 4 egg yolks of extra-large eggs 3 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoon pear liqueur, such as poire williams (optional) The poached pears 1 cup whipping cream Raspberry sauce: 12-ounce package frozen raspberries, thawed, or 1 pint fresh raspberries 3 tablespoons syrup from the pears 3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar, or to taste
To poach the pears: Pare a few strips of lemon zest. Put them in a medium-size saucepan with the sugar, water and vanilla bean. Bring to a boil, stirring. Turn off the heat. Peel the pears and rub each with the cut lemon. Halve the pears lengthwise. With the point of the peeler, remove the flower end and the core of each pear, including the long stringy section that continues to the stem. Bring the syrup to a simmer and add the juice of 1/2 lemon. Add the pear halves and cover with a small lid or plate to keep them submerged. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer 10 to 12 minutes or until the pears can be pierced easily with the point of a small knife. Leave to cool completely in the syrup. The pears can be poached two days ahead and kept in their syrup, covered, in the refrigerator.
To make the bavarian cream, drain 1 cup syrup from the pears. Simmer it in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until reduced to 1/2 cup. Let cool to room temperature.
In a heavy saucepan bring the milk to a boil with the vanilla bean from the poaching syrup (but not with the vanilla extract, if using). Stir in the 1/2 cup reduced syrup and bring back to a boil. Pour the remaining 1/4 cup unreduced syrup into a bowl; sprinkle the gelatin over it and leave to soften.
Remove the vanilla bean from the milk. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture is smooth and light in color. Pour half the hot milk onto the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Return to the saucepan, still whisking.
Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture thickens slightly. To see if it is thick enough, remove from the heat, dip the spoon in the mixture and remove it; the mixture will stick slightly to the spoon. Run your finger across the spoon. If your finger leaves a clear trail in the mixture on the spoon, and the trail doesn't disappear immediately, the mixture is thick enough. If it isn't thick enough, heat it another half minute, stirring, and check again. Do not cook the mixture too long or the egg yolks will curdle.
Immediately stir the softened gelatin into the hot mixture. Mix well, to be sure the gelatin is thoroughly dissolved. Pour the mixture into a bowl and let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. If using vanilla extract, stir it into the cool mixture. Stir in the pear liqueur. Refrigerate the mixture 20 to 30 minutes, stirring often to prevent it from setting at the sides of the bowl, until cold and thick but not set. Chill a bowl and beaters for whipping the cream.
Carefully remove the poached pears from the syrup and put them on paper towels to drain. Cut 2 thin slices from the base of each pear half; reserve the slices as decoration. Dice the remaining pears. Refrigerate.
When the gelatin mixture is thick, whip the cream in the cold bowl until stiff. Fold it into the gelatin mixture, in two portions. Refrigerate for 10 minutes, gently folding the mixture once in a while. Fold in the diced pears. Chill another 5 minutes. Pour the mixture into a 5- or 6-cup mold or bowl. Refrigerate 2 hours or until set.
To make the sauce, pure'e the raspberries with the syrup in a blender or food processor. Strain, pressing hard on the pure'e so only the seeds remain in the strainer. Sift in the confectioners' sugar and mix well. Taste, and add more confectioners' sugar if desired. Refrigerate.
Both the sauce and the bavarian cream can be made 1 day ahead and kept, covered, in the refrigerator.
To unmold the dessert, dip the bottom of the mold in a pan of lukewarm water for a few seconds. Carefully run a thin-bladed knife around the edge of the dessert. Set a serving plate upside down over the mold, and turn both over together so the dessert falls onto the plate.
To serve, carefully pour a ring of sauce around the base of the dessert. Decorate with the pear slices. Serve cold.