Very Spicy Caramel Pears
Before the holidays, we had some friends over for dinner for the first time. Since one of the pair kept a gluten-free diet, I had a bit of fun planning a menu that would be appropriately free of any wheat products. It’s not really a hard thing to do, particularly with savory dishes, but dessert took just a bit more thought for me to plan. My standby dessert in the colder months, particularly when I’m not sure what people really love to eat, is molten chocolate cakes with either ice cream or some type of fruit coulis (I usually offer both) — I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t swoon over the intense, warm, rich oozy chocolate cakes. No gluten meant no molten chocolate cakes, as they do have a little flour in them.
It’s always an interesting experience, don’t you think, having people over to eat for the first time? I suppose some people stress out about it. It kind of takes a lot to get me stressed out, but I also want to ensure that whatever I cook will make people feel special, feel welcome, and that they will really enjoy the meal. One of the things I love about cooking – as I know many cooks do – is bringing pleasure, comfort, nourishment and enjoyment to those we cook for…I like showing my love through my food. So when I cook for people for the first time, I try to take extra care to plan things that I think they’ll like, even if they haven’t tried similar things before (it’s always a gamble when you don’t know how adventurous people are palate-wise), and I hope to create a nice memory for them.
I find that inspiration for dishes to cook usually comes to me in the shower, of all places. There’s a period of time where I just have these nebulous thoughts floating around in my head, and then, all of a sudden, as I’m soaping up, wham! Concrete dish ideas start popping into my head. I know by now that when I’m planning a menu, I should just let ideas percolate in my brain for a day or two, and inspiration usually arrives.
For this dinner, I tried to go with dishes that were some of my seasonal favorites, nothing too fussy, simple but super flavorful. The menu I arrived at was as well-received as I’d hoped: They both had seconds of every dish! We had maple black pepper pork (I cooked two tenderloins in lieu of chops), creamy polenta with parmigiano-reggiano cheese, hashed brussel sprouts braised in a little cream with sauteed shallots, and roasted carrots and parsnips. For dessert, I chose David Lebovitz’s Very Spicy Caramel Pears, from Room for Dessert, and they were a huge hit! We’ve had them a few times since, and they always impress me as a special, sophisticated dessert that’s memorable, yet not overly fussy. The spices are warm and flavorful, the pears are caramelized and utterly delicious (cooking with a little brandy sure helps that).
I’ve served the pears right away, with the caramel sauce poured over the wedges and little bits of spices still clinging to them, and I’ve made them ahead and served them later — if you do that, I find it’s best to store the pears in a container with the caramel sauce poured over them; they soak up the flavors even more and you can just heat up a portion as needed, sauce and all. Either way, it’s a perfect winter dessert.
Very Spicy Caramel Pears
From Room for Dessert by David Lebovitz
These are wonderful served in a shallow bowl with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Preparing apples in the same way would be, I think, absolutely delicious.
15 whole cloves
2 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
4 pears, Bosc, Comice, or Butter (I used 8 miniature pears)
4 tablespoons butter (1/2 stick)
1/2 cup light or dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 cup brandy, Cognac or rum (I like brandy)
1/4 cup heavy cream
Vanilla ice cream, for serving
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Have ready a large baking dish, large enough to hold the quartered pears in a single layer.
Place all the whole spices in a mortar and coarsely crush them with the pestle, or you can place them in a ziptop bag and pound them with a rolling pin until coarsely crushed.
Peel the pears, cut them into quarters, and cut out the core and the fibrous part near the center.
Cut the butter into small pieces and place it in the baking dish with the brown sugar. Place the dish in the oven for a few minutes, until the butter is melted.
Take the dish out of the oven, arrange the pears in a single layer over the melted butter/brown sugar, add the crushed spices and the brandy, and toss everything together until the pears are coated.
Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30-45 minutes, depending on the size and firmness of your pears, until the pears are cooked through but not mushy. Stir the pears a few times during cooking to make sure they’re evenly flavored.
When the pears can be easily pierced with a paring knife, they’re done. Take the dish out of the oven and lift the pears out of the cooking liquid with a slotted spoon (place them in a separate bowl for now, and set aside.) Use a spatula to scrape all the juices and spices from the baking dish into a heavy saute pan.
Add 1/4 cup cream to the pear juices and spices, in the saute pan, and cook over medium heat until the mixture turns a deep color, thickens, and caramelizes. Strain the finished sauce over the pears and serve with scoops of vanilla ice cream.
Note: if you are not going to serve the pears right away, no big deal – I like to spoon the sauce directly over the pears in the bowl I’m storing them in, and letting them cool that way, soaking in the sauce. When you’re ready to serve, scoop a serving of the pear wedges out, making sure to get some of the juices (including any butter that may have solidified in the bowl along with the pears.) Heat in a saute pan or in the microwave, on 70% power, for a minute or two, or until the pears are warm and the sauce is hot. Serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Makes 4 servings.