- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

There’s no better pear for my money than a Bartlett. Juicy, flavorful and aromatic, a Bartlett pear is great raw, eaten out of hand or as a salad component. It makes the best poached pears you could ever want.

Poaching ensures that the pears won’t darken or exude liquid into the dessert you’re making, whether it’s a tart, pie or even a cake. Poaching also is the best way to heighten the already enchanting flavor of an excellent pear.

Said to have originated in Calabria in southern Italy, Bartletts probably were introduced to France by St. Francis of Paola. St. Francis brought a young tree as a gift for King Louis XI of France, who had summoned him in the hope that the saint would miraculously cure the king’s many illnesses.

When the king died in 1483, St. Francis returned to Italy, but he left behind the legacy of his pear tree, called by the French the “poire bon chretien” (good Christian pear).

Bartletts crossed the channel to England in the 17th century and took their name from a British horticulturist named Williams. (In Europe, Bartletts are still called Williams.) They were distributed in the United States by Enoch Bartlett of Dorchester, Mass., and, thus, named for him here.

Bartlett pears should be purchased firm and left to ripen for a few days at room temperature. A ripe pear yields to gentle pressure at the blossom end and is never soft. Overripe pears acquire a mealy texture, and although they remain sweet, they have a starchy taste and texture.

Try today’s poached pears just as they are or in the fancy, old-fashioned poached pears with chocolate ice cream, traditionally called coupe Belle Helene and named for Jacques Offenbach’s 19th-century operetta “La Belle Helene.”

Poached pears

Water

Ice

Juice of 2 lemons, strained

6 firm but ripe Bartlett pears

1½ cups sugar

1 vanilla bean

6 1/4-inch slices fresh ginger root, unpeeled

In a large pan, combine 1 quart water with 1 quart ice cubes and lemon juice. Use a vegetable peeler to peel a pear, then use a sharp paring knife to cut it in half from stem to blossom end. Use the small end of a melon-ball scoop to remove the blossom end, core and stem. Immediately add each pear half to the lemon ice water after it is peeled and cored. Repeat with remaining pears.

Use a slotted spoon to remove pear halves from water, placing them in a large enameled iron Dutch oven. Strain enough of the lemon water over the pears to cover. Add sugar, vanilla bean and ginger root.

Cover pears with a piece of parchment paper with several holes cut in it. Press on the paper so it sits below the surface of the liquid, keeping the pear halves from emerging and darkening in the air. Place pan over medium heat and bring liquid to a full rolling boil. Cover pan, remove from heat and let pears cool in liquid. They will finish cooking from the heat retained by the liquid.

Use a slotted spoon to remove pears from liquid to a plastic container. Cover them with poaching liquid. (Reserve remaining poaching liquid, refrigerated, for another batch of pears, if desired.) Refrigerate pears for up to 5 days before serving.

VARIATIONS ON POACHED PEARS:

Pears poached in white wine: Cover pears with white wine before adding sugar and vanilla. Omit ginger root. Add zest of a lemon, stripped off with a vegetable peeler.

Pears poached in red wine: Cover pears with red wine before adding sugar. Omit vanilla and add 10 black peppercorns, the zest of an orange, stripped off with a vegetable peeler, and 2 cinnamon sticks.

Poires coupe Belle Helene

2 halves poached pears (preceding recipe)

Chocolate ice cream or sherbet

Chocolate shavings and cigar-shaped curls

Chocolate sauce (recipe follows)

Drain 2 pear halves on paper towel and arrange them in an attractive stemmed glass or dessert bowl. Add a scoop of chocolate ice cream or sherbet and decorate with chocolate shavings and cigar-shaped curls. At the table, spoon chocolate sauce over. Makes 1 serving.

CHOCOLATE SAUCE:

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup light corn syrup

12 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, cut in 1/4-inch pieces

Pinch salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

Combine cream, sugar and corn syrup in a saucepan and whisk well to mix. Bring to a full boil over medium heat. Remove from heat, add chocolate and whisk smooth. Whisk in salt and vanilla.

Use immediately or store in a covered jar, refrigerated. Reheat sauce over low heat before using. Makes about 2 cups.

Pear custard tart

CRUST:

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring work surface

3 tablespoons sugar

½ teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut in 8 pieces

1 large egg

FILLING:

6 halves poached pears (recipe precedes)

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

4 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla

Have ready an ungreased 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

For the crust, combine 1 cup flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in work bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to mix.

Add butter and pulse repeatedly until butter is finely incorporated.

Add egg and continue to pulse until dough forms a ball. Invert dough onto a floured surface and carefully remove blade.

Form dough into a disk. Set a rack on lowest level of oven.

Roll dough and line tart pan with it, severing excess dough at the rim of the pan.

Slice each pear half across the core at 1/4-inch intervals and fan out each half. Lift pear halves into crust using a long spatula.

Bake tart in preheated 375-degree oven for 15 minutes.

While tart is baking, whisk sugar and 1 tablespoon flour together in a mixing bowl. Whisk in whipping cream, egg yolks, lemon zest and vanilla, one at a time. Open oven and pour custard over pears in crust.

Continue baking about 15 minutes longer, or until custard has set. Cool tart on a rack and serve at room temperature.

Refrigerate leftovers wrapped in plastic and bring them to room temperature before serving again.

Makes 8 servings.

Nick Malgieri is the author of “Perfect Cakes” and “A Baker’s Tour” (HarperCollins) and “Perfect Light Desserts” (Morrow).

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