But looks are deceiving: Pretty bakes can be astonishingly easy to pull off. It takes precision and planning, but your next brunch contribution will wow the assembled guests. When the Sunday newspaper and another cup of coffee are the preferred early morning activity, I can promise a cooking project that won’t require an entire day in the kitchen.
Puff pastry is the base here, a laminated — or layered — dough. When I don’t have the time to make my own, I rely on the excellent options found in the grocery store freezer section, seeking out the best quality, all-butter version available. This Danish starts with a square piece of puff pastry; I once bought precut squares at a big box store, which makes fancy pastry about as easy as a toaster waffle.
The fruit layer here is a pear puree, essentially applesauce made with pears. It’s slightly sweetened, but if you wish to omit the sugar, that’s fine, too. I’ve used cardamom in every element of this pastry, but feel free to opt for cinnamon or vanilla instead. Or substitute pear butter, apple butter or thick fruit preserves if you’re short on time.
Pastry cream is a custard — egg yolks, milk and butter often thickened with cornstarch over low heat. Sometimes considered tricky, the primary challenge in custard-making is adding hot liquid to beaten eggs; if done too quickly, you’ve made lumpy custard that’s more like scrambled eggs. “Tempering” is kitchen lingo for adding a small amount of warm liquid to beaten yolks, while continuing to whisk the yolks so they do not scramble. Anchor the bowl with the yolks on a folded kitchen towel to keep it from slipping as you whisk. Add the lightened yolks back into the saucepan of warmed milk and continue whisking. Once the custard is thick, pass it through a sieve to achieve absolutely silky pastry cream. (I will admit to skipping this last step if I’m confident in the tempering.)
The streusel, offering a marvelous textural, spiced topping, pinches together in a few minutes. Add chopped, toasted nuts, if you wish, or omit the streusel altogether.
To make all three elements takes no more than an hour, start to finish, without making too much of a mess in the kitchen. And they can all be made days in advance.
To assemble the pastries, make a few quick slashes with a sharp knife and a flourishing twist to form a patisserie-level structure, spoon in the puree, cream and streusel and the pastries are ready to bake. They are magnificent when served slightly warm, so make them for breakfast when you’ve got houseguests (or family) hoping for something special. They are just as wonderful at room temperature, which means you can walk into brunch with a little something you whipped up that morning and simply wait for the purrs of satisfaction.
Cardamom Pear Breakfast Pastries
MAKE AHEAD: The pear puree may be made up to 1 week ahead, covered and refrigerated. The pastry cream may be made up to 3 days ahead, covered and refrigerated. The streusel may be made 1 week ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator. The pastry squares may be cut, scored and frozen for up to 3 months, tightly wrapped. The pastry may be assembled up to 1 hour ahead. The pastries may be baked up to 6 hours ahead, refrigerated and reheated at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.
2 pounds (900 grams) Bartlett pears or other ripe pears, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds, finely ground with the side of a knife, or in a mortar and pestle
1 cup (240 milliliters) whole milk
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, finely ground with the side of a knife, or in a mortar and pestle
2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1½ tablespoons (21 grams) unsalted butter, cubed
¼ cup (25 grams) rolled (not instant) oats
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons (28 grams) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
2 (1-pound/454-gram) packages puff pastry, defrosted overnight in the refrigerator
Flour, for dusting the counter
Make the puree: Place the pears, water, sugar, lemon juice and cardamom in a small saucepan. Set over medium heat and cover, cooking gently until the fruit is cooked through and mushy, and all the excess moisture has evaporated, about 12 minutes. Stir frequently to avoid scorching. Remove from the heat and stir briskly into a smooth puree. Cool completely.
Make the pastry cream: Set a strainer over a large bowl placed inside an ice bath. In a small saucepan, warm the milk over medium heat until tiny bubbles appear at the edge of the pan. Stir in the cardamom seeds, remove the pan from the heat, cover and steep for 30 minutes. Strain the milk and discard the seeds. The milk should still be slightly warm — if not, gently warm again over low heat.
Whisk ⅓ cup (80 milliliters) of the cardamom-scented milk with the cornstarch, flour and egg yolks in a small bowl and set aside. Combine the remaining milk with the sugar and salt in a medium saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. When small bubbles appear at the edge of the pan, remove from the heat and slowly whisk about half the milk into the egg mixture. Return the milk-and-egg mixture to the pan and place it back on medium heat. Whisking constantly, bring the mixture to a boil until the pastry cream thickens and is satiny and smooth like pudding, about 5 minutes. Watch and whisk steadily to avoid scorching.
Remove the pan from the heat and, using a whisk or a sturdy spoon, push the custard through the strainer into the bowl set over the ice bath, to remove any lumps. Add the butter cubes and continue to stir until the butter has melted and the pastry cream is glossy and cooled. Scrape the custard into a small bowl. Place a piece of plastic wrap on top of the surface of the custard to keep a skin from forming. Refrigerate for 2 hours or until completely cool.
Make the streusel: Place the flour, oats, brown sugar, nutmeg and salt in the work bowl of the food processor and pulse until the mixture is pebbly, about 5 times. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture comes together in damp clumps, 2 or 3 pulses.
Make the egg wash: In a small bowl, whisk the egg, water and salt together until thoroughly combined.
Assemble the pastries: Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove one package of puff pastry from the refrigerator. Liberally dust the counter with flour and roll out the pastry until it is 8-by-12-inches. Using a pizza wheel or a sharp paring knife, cut 6 (four-inch) squares.
Fold one pastry square in half diagonally. Using a sharp knife, make a cut along one of the short sides about ½ inch from the edge, starting at the fold and stopping about an inch short of the opposite corner. Repeat with a cut on the other short side. Unfold the triangle to reveal a diamond shape with the attached corners at top and bottom. Lift the separated edge on one side of the diamond and pull it across so the point is on top of the opposite corner. Repeat with the other separated edge. This should create a pastry that is diamond-shaped with decorative twists at the top and bottom, and a center exposed and waiting for the filling. Repeat with the remaining dough squares. If at any time the dough warms and gets gooey, return it to the refrigerator to re-chill, about 15 minutes. Using a small pastry brush, coat the edges of the pastry with the egg wash. Chill the pastries in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Repeat with the second package of puff pastry to create 12 pastry shells.
Spoon 1 scant tablespoon of pear puree into the center and spread it to the frame. Gently spread 2 tablespoons of pastry cream on top of the fruit. Scatter about 1 tablespoon of the streusel over the custard. Repeat with the remaining pastries. Place the baking sheets in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
While the pastry chills, preheat the oven to 400 degrees with the rack in the middle if baking one sheet at a time, or in the top and bottom thirds if baking two sheets at a time.
Slide the pastries into the oven and bake 25 to 30 minutes. The puff pastry will get deeply bronzed and will lift up in airy layers. The custard will get lightly freckled and the streusel will toast. If baking two baking sheets at once, swap and rotate the baking sheets after about 15 minutes, to ensure even baking. Cool slightly before serving.