Pears in Pastry with Caramel Sauce
Ripe pears, cloaked in sweet pastry, baked and served in a pool of Caramel Sauce – what an elegant dessert! As soon as I saw Mary Risley, owner of Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco make these pears on a video, I knew I had to try them. Judy Witts Francini, owner of Divina Cucina Cooking School in Certaldo, Italy commented that these pears would be perfect for New Year’s Eve, and she is right. Never one to skimp at the holidays, Judy suggested serving the baked pears with chocolate caramel sauce and edible gold leaf. Thank you, Mary and thank you, Judy – two cooking teachers who rock.
Judy’s chocolate and gold variation got me thinking about other ways to use the basic caramel sauce. I thought a gently spiced caramel might complement the pears. Ginger, cloves, nutmeg, black peppercorns and cinnamon impart subtle warmth to the dark caramel sauce while star anise added a hint of licorice and vanilla added a deep sweetness. This is caramel sauce transformed. If the spiced version of caramel sauce appeals to you, liven up the pastry too by adding ground black pepper and cloves, a variation shown at the end of the pastry recipe.
Don’t panic. This dessert can be made in steps. Make the sauce, which ever one you choose, several days ahead and refrigerate it. Make the pastry the day before.
If the idea of making your own pastry is simply a total overwhelm, purchase a box of frozen puff pastry, thaw it in the refrigerator overnight, and you are good to go.
Bake the pears on a sheet pan lined with a flexible silicone baking sheet, such as Silpat. The pears never stick to the Silpat sheet, even if the egg glaze drips onto the mat.
These pears are best eaten right after baking. To really dress them up, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and edible gold leaf. Your guests will talk about this dessert all through the holidays and into the new year. You can do this.
1 2/3 cup 00 flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ½-inch chunks
1 large egg yolk
4 tablespoons ice water
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 large egg yolk
1 lemon, cut in half
Place flour, granulated sugar, and sea salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal knife. Pulse twice to combine. Remove the processor cover, and scatter the butter over the flour mixture. Pulse several times to cut the butter into pea-sized pieces. Lightly beat the egg yolk and ice water together in a small measuring cup. With the processor running, add egg and ice water mixture. Stop the machine and pulse until the dough looks crumbly. Drop the dough into a pile on the work surface. Use the heel of your hand to smear the dough across the work surface 3 or 4 times, until dough can be formed into a cohesive mass. You will still see bits of butter. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate it for 20-30 minutes.
Variation: add teaspoon each of freshly ground black pepper and ground cloves to the flour mixture and ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract to the egg and ice water mixture.
Meanwhile prepare the pears. Peel them, taking care to leave the stem intact. Remove and discard about ½ inch of the core from the bottom of each pear. Place the pears on the counter to check that they can stand up. If not, trim the bottom of the pear so that they will stand up. If they have a bit of a lean or a sway, that is fine. It is called character, not a defect. Drizzle lemon juice over the pears to prevent browning (oxidation.) Place the pears in the refrigerator.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator 10 minutes before rolling. Lightly flour a work surface and rolling pin. Roll the dough to 1/8-inch thickness. (If, after rolling, the dough has become very soft, transfer it to a parchment lined baking sheet and refrigerate for 10 minutes.)
Lightly butter or line a baking sheet with a Silpat mat, and clear a space large enough to accommodate the baking sheet in the refrigerator. (You will be placing the pears on the sheet in the refrigerator. It pays to have the space ready.) Set the baking sheet aside. In a small bowl lightly beat the egg and heavy cream to make a glaze. Set aside.
Remove the pears from the refrigerator and pat dry.
Cut a round or rectangle of dough large enough to cover the pears, about 6 to 8 inches across, depending on the size and height of each pear. Cut a small hole in the center of the dough, using the tip of a pastry tube or paring knife.
Lift the dough and drape it over the pear, sliding the stem through the hole in the center of the pastry. Pleat the dough 3 or 4 times, pressing it gently against the outline of the pear. Gather the dough, folding and tucking it beneath the pear, and place the pear on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pear.
Cut small pastry leaves, 2 or 3 per pear, using a leaf cutter or paring knife. Draw veins on the top of the leaves.
Use a pastry brush to paint the pears with the glaze. Position 2 leaves against each pear near the stem, vein sides visible. Paint the leaves with the glaze. Place the baking sheet with the pears in the refrigerator for thirty minutes.
Adjust the oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. If using puff pastry, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
After thirty minutes, remove the pears from the refrigerator, and paint both pears and leaves again with egg glaze.
Bake on the center rack until golden, about 35-40 minutes.
Pour the caramel sauce on serving plate. Place a warm pear atop the sauce and serve, adding vanilla ice cream and edible gold leaf (see Cook’s Notes below), if desired.
Any of these sauces are wonderful served with the pears. There are a few caveats about making caramel. The first is be careful. Get the kids and pets out of the kitchen. The sugar mixture will rise to well over 300 degrees F. Pay attention and do not leave the pan unattended. Have a bowl of ice water nearby and plunge your hand into it should you be splashed with hot caramel.
Sugar has a tendency to crystallize, and so it is important to use gentle heat to dissolve the sugar completely before turning up the heat and bringing the liquid to a boil. If you want some extra insurance against crystallization, add 2 tablespoons of corn syrup along with the water used to dissolve the sugar. Avoid splashing the water and sugar solution on the sides of the pan. Any sugar that hits the sides will crystallize and in turn form more crystals. Use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash down any crystals that form.
Be certain the cream you add is warm. Add it slowly at first. It will bubble up, but once the caramel cools a bit, the bubbling will stop. If the caramel hardens or partially thickens when you add the cream, place the pan over a low flame and stir gently. The caramel will soften, and the cream will blend.
The sauce may be cooled and stored 1 week, well covered in the refrigerator. To soften and warm refrigerated sauce before use make a bain marie by bringing an inch or two of water to a very gentle simmer in a skillet or low-sided saucepan. Place the caramel, in a heatproof bowl, in the simmering water. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the caramel sauce has warmed and thinned. Avoid sloshing any water into the bowl of caramel. You may also heat the sauce on low power in a microwave, 15-30 seconds at a time, checking frequently.
Simple Caramel Sauce
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
2 tablespoons corn syrup (optional)
½ cup heavy cream, at warm room temperature
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 4 pieces
Pour the granulated sugar into a 4-quart heavy bottom saucepan with high sides. Add the water (and corn syrup if using.) Stir gently with a heat-proof spatula to combine, being careful not to splash the sides of the pan. Heat over medium until the sugar has completely dissolved, giving an occasional gentle stir. Once the sugar has dissolved completely, increase the heat to medium high and bring it to a boil. Continue cooking, swirling the pan occasionally, until the sugar has taken on an amber color. Some spots in the pan will color before others. Gently swirl the pan to mix and even out the color. Cook about 7 to 8 minutes, until the mixture takes on a deep amber color and just begins to smoke. Remove the pan from the heat. Slowly add the warm cream, stirring with a long-handled spatula. Add the butter and combine well. Transfer to a heatproof bowl or measuring cup to cool slightly.
Chocolate Caramel Sauce
Make the sauce as above. Add 2 ounces of chopped 71% chocolate along with the butter, blending well.
Spiced Caramel Sauce
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
2 tablespoons light corn syrup (optional)
½ cup heavy cream, at warm room temperature
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in 2 pieces, at room temperature
2 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
vanilla bean, split seeds scraped
5 black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of ground cloves
Pour the granulated sugar into a 4-quart heavy bottom saucepan with high sides. Add the water (and corn syrup, if using.) Stir gently with a heat-proof spatula to combine, being careful not to splash the sides of the pan. Heat over medium heat until sugar has dissolved completely, giving an occasional gentle stir. Carefully add the cinnamon sticks, star anise and split vanilla bean with its scraped seeds into the saucepan. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. Continue cooking, swirling the pan occasionally, until the sugar has taken on an amber color. Some spots in the pan will color before others. Gently swirl to mix. Cook about 7 to 8 minutes, until the mixture is a deep amber color and has just begun to smoke. Remove the pan from the heat. Very carefully add the warm cream, stirring with a long-handled spatula. Add the butter and stir well. Add the ground nutmeg, ginger and cloves. Combine well. Scrape any remaining seeds from the vanilla bean into the Spiced Caramel and combine. Store the caramel, tightly covered, with the whole spices and vanilla bean up to 1 week in the refrigerator. The longer the spices rest in the caramel, the more flavor they will impart. Serve the Spiced Caramel Sauce with or without the whole spices.
Cook’s notes: If you’re asking “So what’s Italian about this anyway?” The answer is – the gold. It comes from Italy. To use gold leaf in food or beverages, you must purchase food grade edible gold leaf. It is supplied either in rectangular sheets, small pieces known as petals or in small sprinkles, also called flakes. Sheets and petals are supplied in boxes, and are best handled with wooden tweezers or sticks or fine paint brushes. Sprinkles (flakes) are supplied in small shakers. I use FRM brand gold, 23 karat. Edible gold leaf, an inert substance is available at many baking supply stores and FancyFlours.com.
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I have no affiliation with any product, manufacturer, or site mentioned in this article.