One of my earliest food memories was the discovery of a pear tree in the schoolyard way back in kindergarten. It was a sunny late fall day and as I ran through the leaves, the strangely shaped brown apples caught my eye. The sweet aroma of wet leaves and fallen fruit was too much to resist so I grabbed one, and as soon as I was out of view of the teacher, I took my first bite. The soft, sweet, juicy flesh was so delicious that I instantly fell in love as I quickly ate as much as I could and got rid of the evidence among the leaves.
I felt excitement mixed with guilt, and though I knew I could get in trouble, I repeated my crime several times over the following weeks. I would wait patiently for just the right moment when the teacher was distracted to sneak off for my secret treat until one day when I was surprised to find almost all of the fruit was gone. I could see a few hanging higher up, and decided I could climb high enough to reach one. As I wriggled my way up between the branches, I found a place to wedge my foot and as I leaned out to reach my prize, I spotted the teacher walking quickly in my direction. In my panic to climb down my foot slipped, and for a few seconds I felt like I was floating.
It took a moment to realize I was hanging upside down from the tree, my other foot still wedged in the perfect spot. The teachers worked quickly to get me loose, and though I was uninjured, I knew my secret was out. I did not get in trouble for my mischief, but the teachers watched me a little more closely from that day on. Though I still love pears today, I almost never climb trees, preferring to buy them.
One of my favorite ways to enjoy pears is with cheese and bread as a light snack, but poaching in simple syrup can deepen and enhance their delicate flavor, as well as turn them into a stunning formal dessert. To complement the concentrated flavors of cooked fruit, stronger, veined cheese and tender, caramelized chestnuts add richness and balance the sweetness. Citrus zest and Grand Marnier add a pop of freshness and acidity.
Poaching fruit is a delicate process; as caramelization progresses it is important to avoid scorching or overcooking, and choosing the right pan can make a big difference. I chose a heavy Mauviel copper sauté for its instant reaction to flame adjustments, and because there will be no hot spots to watch over for burning. I can also use a lower flame, which prevents the fruit turning to mush. With the lid on, it essentially becomes a tiny steam oven, creating the perfect environment for gently cooking delicate foods.
Poached Pears with Caramelized Chestnuts and Roquefort Cheese
4 pears, halved (any pears will do but bosc or red d’anjou have the best flavor)
12 chestnuts in shells
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur
1 tablespoon lemon zest (finely grated)
1 tablespoon orange zest (finely grated)
1/2 lb Roquefort or other soft, ripe cheese, sliced in chunks (two or three per serving)
Preheat oven to 400’F.
Cut a 1/2″ X through the shell of each chestnut to prevent them bursting. Take care not to miss one or you’ll have a mess to clean out of the oven! I’ve never had one explode on me but I’ve seen the aftermath in a friend’s oven. Place the nuts in a shallow baking pan and bake for 20-30 minutes. You will know the nuts are done when the X’s open up and curl back. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before peeling. Be sure to prepare a few more than you need, the aroma is irresistible!
In a large, lidded sauté pan, melt butter then stir in honey, water and orange liqueur. Add the sliced pears flesh side down along with the shelled chestnuts and bring to a boil. Add the lemon and orange zest to the pan then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until the pears are tender. Arrange pear slices and chestnuts on a serving plate, dress with additional syrup and roquefort or another pungent, soft cheese for an elegant dessert.
Mauviel M’héritage Copper & Stainless Steel Saute Pan, cast iron handle
Revol Arborescence Coupe Bowl – Ivory
Revol Arborescence Rectangle Imitation Wood Serving Platter – Ivory
Revol Belle Cuisine Black Rectangle Baking Dish
John Boos Block Walnut Fusion Cutting Board
Wüsthof 4″ Pairing Knife Classic IKON
Piper-Heidsieck Rose Champagne