Pears come in many varieties, each different in texture, appearance and degree of sweetness, and texture. Not for naught did the Greek poet Homer call the fruit, with its rich, aromatic flavor and its velvety texture, a "gift of the gods."
The genius of the pear lies in its ability to meld with other flavors and textures, heightening them while contributing its delicate sweetness and stylized beauty.
The classic combination is baked pears and almonds, a twinning that yields a harmonious blend of flavors and textures. Many dishes owe their existence to this match: from the classic pear and almond cream tart, a French masterpiece of subtlety and crispiness; through baked pears in almond cream and crumbled Amaretti cookies, from northern Italy; to Pain Perdu, a sublime French toast made with bread soaked in heavy cream and almonds, baked with pears in caramel.
But pears are polyamorous, mating happily with cheeses sharp and mild, in cakes, with wine and with chocolate.
They go well with blue cheeses like Gorgonzola, Stilton or Roquefort but also with cheddar, Brie, Camembert, Manchego and soft goat's cheese. Add walnuts and bitter salad greens, such as arugula or endive, for a perfect blend of flavors that needs only fresh bread and butter with a bit of sherry vinegar or aged balsamic vinegar mixed in.
Pears work beautifully in any dessert, thanks to their balance of juiciness and stable consistency. They are delicious stewed, blanched in wine with spices or baked, unpeeled, in Marsala wine and butter. Paired with chocolate, they are a favorite with children and adults.
For one of the world's most famous desserts, Poires Belle Helene, pears are poached in white wine with spices and topped with hot chocolate sauce.
Now is the time
The main pear varieties grown in Israel are Spadona and Costia, both of which are harvested between July and mid-August. That means the ones sold at other times come from cold storage.
The Spadona has a green skin, moderately sweet flesh and plenty of juice. It is picked while still hard but is most flavorful when soft and should be kept at room temperature for a few days to ripen. The Spadona variety is suitable for cooking and baking, as well as eating out of hand.
Costia pears are yellow, sometimes with a red cheek. They must be eaten while still firm, as they lose their flavor when soft, and should be kept refrigerated. They are less suited to cooking and baking.
The Nashi, or Asian pear, resembles an apple in shape. It has a yellow-bronze color, retains its firmness for a long time and is especially crunchy and juicy. The skin is bitter. The Nashi is a welcome addition to a cold and refreshing fruit salad, but is unsuitable for cooking or baking.
Pear galettes stuffed with marzipan over plum jam
Ingredients (6 servings )
For the filling
6 puff pastry squares, 10 x 10 centimeters each
3 small pears with stem, moderately hard and peeled
1 cup water
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup sugar
2-centimeter lemon peel
1 cinnamon stick
For the filling:
30 grams high-quality marzipan
1 tablespoon prune butter (powidl )
Vanilla ice cream, powdered sugar
Place the water, wine, sugar, lemon peel and cinnamon stick in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Add the pears and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Turn the pears and cook for another 10 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the flesh goes in easily but with slight resistance. Take care not to overcook them. When done, remove the pot from the heat and let the pears cool in the cooking liquid.
When cool remove each pear, gently slice each in half lengthwise and seed, using a melon baller or spoon. Dry each half with a paper towel and fill the cavity in the cut side with a spoonful of marzipan.
Heat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Place a square of puff pastry on a cutting board and place a pear half on top. Trim the excess pastry around the pear, leaving a margin of at least one centimeter around. Repeat with each square. The pastry dough must remain very cold while cutting to prevent it from rising. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Line an ovenproof pan with baking paper and place the pastry squares in the pan. Spread each with a half teaspoon of prune butter and place a pear half, cut side down, on each. Bake for 25 minutes. Sprinkle powdered sugar on top and serve hot, with vanilla ice cream or sour cream.
Black pears in toffee sauce & almonds
For this dish the pears cook for a long time in a delicate caramel sauce until they turn dark brown and chewy, like a fine gummi candy, and are then baked to an espresso black. Terrific with ice cream, goat's-milk yogurt or chilled panna cotta. Or seed, quarter and place on top of a lettuce salad dressed with a slightly sweet vinaigrette, Roquefort and nuts.
For the pears
8 small pears, moderately hard and peeled (leave stems on )
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (130 grams ) sugar
1 cinnamon stick
For the toffee:
4 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons ground almonds
Place the pears, sugar and cinnamon in a medium pot. Cover and place over medium heat until the pot comes to a boil and the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat to as low as possible and leave the pot, tightly covered, for 6-8 hours until the pears have shrunk in size and are the color of chocolate.
Heat the oven to 120 degrees Celsius. Remove the pears from the cooking liquid, reserving the liquid for the toffee sauce, and bake in a baking-paper-lined pan for 90-120 minutes, until the pears are the color of espresso and the texture of gummi candies. Refrigerated in a sterilized jar with the cooking liquid, they will keep for months.
Serving suggestion: Dry-roast ground almonds in a frying pan for several minutes, stirring constantly, until lightly browned. Cool. Place each pear on a dessert plate.
For the toffee sauce, heat 4 tablespoons of the caramel cooking liquid and 4 tablespoons of heavy cream in a small pot. Bring to a boil, simmer for 2 minutes and remove from heat. Drizzle the hot toffee sauce over the pears and sprinkle with roasted almonds.
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