In his wonderful new book Tender: Volume II, Nigel Slater captures the elusiveness of that rare thing, a delicious pear. “Like a snowflake,” he writes, “the perfectly ripe pear is a fleeting thing. Something to be caught, held tenderly, briefly marvelled at, before it is gone forever.” The 19th century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once calculated that a pear is at its peak for approximately 10 minutes—one minute it’s bullet-hard, turn your back and it’s become tasteless, grainy mush.
Emerson would find very little changed in modern times, as most varieties are now grown for looks and durability in transit rather than the soft juicy indulgence pear lovers long for.
If you do find such a pear, eat it immediately and greedily, swooning loudly over every nibble. If, more likely, you’re stuck with a bowl of stubborn fruit refusing to ripen, a little kitchen creativity might be called for.
Also Read Pamela Timms’ earlier columns
We’re right in the middle of the Indian pear season now with tonnes of fruit from Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh in the markets, so it’s a time of highs and lows for pear fanciers.
One way to soften unyielding pears and tease out their flavour is to poach them in a light syrup with aromatics such as vanilla or ginger. Recently, while working on our autumn tea-party menus, my baking partner Laura struck on the idea of poaching pears with star anise. Our Pear and Star Anise Galettes had their first outing last weekend and received many compliments. The pear flavour was intensified and the anise offered a delicate Far Eastern flirtation.
Here, I’ve used small Kashmiri pears, which have a wonderful flavour but never reach Slater/Emerson levels of toothsomeness, in a classic French-style tart recipe. It makes a wonderful dessert for a special occasion. And as we know, there are plenty of those coming up.
Pear and star anise tart
For the poached anise pears
6 Kashmiri pears
6 whole star anise
Half a vanilla pod
For the pastry
100g caster sugar
200g cold butter
A little iced water
For the tart filling
100ml sour cream or malai
200ml double cream
You will need one 25cm metal flan or tart tin or six individual-sized tart tins.
First, the poached pears. Peel the pears and cut in half from top to bottom. Put them in a bowl and squeeze over the lemon juice to stop them from going brown. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat the sugar and water with the star anise and vanilla pod. When the sugar has dissolved and the syrup is boiling, gently lower in the pear halves. Simmer the fruit gently until tender but not mushy. I gave the Kashmiri pears about 10 minutes in all, turning them over half way, but European pears would need less. Turn off the heat but leave the pears in the syrup to take on more of the anise and vanilla flavours while you make the pastry and filling.
If using a food processor, put in the sugar, butter and flour and blitz until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Then add a tablespoon of water at a time until the mixture starts to bind together. Use as little water as possible—the less the water, the lighter and crumblier the pastry will be. Wrap the dough in cling film, then put in the fridge to rest.
Melt the 60g butter in a pan. In a jug, measure out the creams, then beat in the eggs and sugar. Lastly mix in the melted butter.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Roll out the pastry as thinly as possible and place it in the tart tin. This pastry dough is fairly crumbly so don’t despair if it doesn’t transfer neatly from board to tin, simply press the pastry into the tin with your fingers and use excess pieces to patch up any holes so that the filling doesn’t seep through.
Next, bake the pastry shell “blind”, that is, without its filling. To do this, place a piece of foil or baking parchment on top of the pastry and pour enough pulses or rice on to it to flatten the paper. This is to stop the pastry puffing up during baking. Bake for about 20-25 minutes until the pastry is cooked but not brown, then take out and remove the paper and pulses.
When you’re ready to assemble the tart, take the pear halves out of the syrup and gently cut out the core. Reserve the syrup. Place the pear halves in concentric circles in the pastry case, cut side down. If making individual tarts, put one pear half in the centre of each pastry case.
Pour over the egg/cream mixture—you may not need all of it—then bake the tart(s) for about 30 minutes, until the custard filling looks set.
While the tart is baking, boil the syrup again until it becomes very thick. Strain the syrup through a fine sieve. When the tart is ready, carefully brush the top of the tart with the syrup to make it beautifully glossy. Dust the edges of the pastry with a sprinkling of icing sugar.
If left to cool, the anise syrup permeates the custard and pastry and, for elevenses, as I discovered while writing this, that’s no bad thing.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at http://eatanddust.wordpress.com
Write to Pamela at email@example.com