- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Quite a while ago, my husband and I decided to forgo big, crowded New Year’s Eve parties for the warmth and intimacy of

small dinners with a few friends. Sometimes we play hosts on Dec. 31, and other years our friends invite us to their home, but no matter where we dine, everyone shares in the cooking. This year, because we will be guests, I have volunteered to make dessert.

The sweet finale for a New Year’s Eve fete has to be special, and I know exactly what I am going to bring. Red-wine-poached pears drizzled with zabaglione (a simple Italian custard sauce) served warm will be my contribution.

Whole pears are peeled, then poached in an aromatic mixture of wine and sugar that is scented with lemon and spices. Cooked until tender and tinted the deep red hue of the wine, these delectable pears can be prepared two days ahead when kept refrigerated.

The simple custard sauce takes just minutes to assemble and is fashioned by whisking eggs, sugar, and Marsala (Italy’s famous fortified wine) over gentle heat until smooth and thick. The sauce, too, can be prepared ahead and simply needs to be brought to room temperature and whisked when needed.

These glistening, dark crimson pears, napped with spoonfuls of ivory zabaglione, make a striking presentation and taste every bit as good as they look. Serve them as midnight approaches along with glasses of champagne to welcome 2009.

Red-wine-poached pears with zabaglione

Makes 8 servings.

ZABAGLIONE:

4 large egg yolks

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup dry Marsala (see note)

PEARS:

6 cups dry red wine

3 cups sugar

6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

2 3-inch-long cinnamon sticks, broken in half

2 thin quarter-size slices peeled fresh ginger

8 medium firm Bartlett pears

8 mint sprigs

For the zabaglione, fill a medium saucepan 1/3 full with water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Place eggs and sugar in a medium heat-proof bowl that will fit over the saucepan and whisk constantly a minute or more until mixture is pale yellow and creamy. Set bowl over (but not touching) the pot of simmering water.

Add Marsala and whisk constantly until mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and continue to whisk for 2 more minutes. Cool to room temperature. (Zabaglione can be prepared 1 day ahead; cover the surface of the custard sauce with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature and whisk well before using.)

For the pears, combine wine, sugar, lemon juice and zest, cinnamon, and ginger in a large, heavy nonreactive saucepan set over medium-high heat. Stir constantly until sugar dissolves, then bring mixture to a simmer.

Cut a small slice from the bottoms of pears so they will stand upright. Peel, but do not stem pears, then add to wine mixture. Bring poaching liquid to a simmer and cook pears, uncovered, until tender when pierced with a knife, 35 to 50 minutes, depending upon ripeness. (Pears can be poached 2 days ahead; cool in poaching liquid, then cover and refrigerate. Reheat pears in poaching liquid over medium heat.)

With a slotted spoon, transfer warm pears to a large bowl and cover loosely with foil. Bring poaching liquid to a boil and cook until liquid has reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Strain liquid, discarding solids.

Place pears on 8 individual dessert plates. Ladle 2 to 3 tablespoons of poaching liquid over each, then spoon some zabaglione over each and garnish with a mint sprig. Serve with a spoon or a fork and spoon.

Note: Marsala is available where wine and spirits are sold. Use a dry Marsala, not a sweet one, for this recipe.

Note: You can save leftover poaching liquid and drizzle it warm over vanilla ice cream.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “The Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).

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