My mother is usually the one who makes poached pears. I have a photo of her in an old family album, holding a platter of them. By the length of her hair, I’m guessing that the year was 1982. My father must have snapped the picture as they were leaving for a holiday party. That was the kind of thing he liked to do. She’s standing in the wood-paneled den of the house we lived in until I was 13, wearing what appears to be a sand-colored fur jacket. She must have curled her hair with hot rollers, because it sits on her shoulders in soft loops, and where she’s pinned it back above her left ear, you can see the sparkle of her earring. Her eyes are lined in dark pencil, and her lipstick is as red and glossy as a Robert Palmer girl’s. She’s staring at something just beyond the camera, probably waiting for the flash to go off. The platter is in front of her chest, tilted slightly downward, so you can see the pears in neat rows. For her, that’s clearly what the photo is about: a dozen pears standing upright, each carefully peeled, poached, painted in dark chocolate, and topped with a sprig of fresh holly leaves. I like that for my father, the photo is clearly about her.
I had never poached a pear until yesterday. There’s no real reason – though I guess it’s that, for many years of my life, poached pears were a grown-up thing. They were the dessert that my mother would make for parties, or for dinners with guests who arrived after I’d gone to bed. The fact that the pears weren’t for me should have made me desperate to have them, but the truth is, even with their chocolate coating, they were fruit, and as anyone who’s been a kid can tell you, fruit isn’t a real dessert.
Of course, I’m older now than my mother was when I was born. I’m old enough to poach a pear.
My mother was in town last weekend. On Saturday morning, we went to the market, and because we needed apples for an escarole salad at Delancey, we went to see my friend Wynne. Wynne happened to have some nice pears, so when we left with our box of apples, we also took the four Purple Goddesses up there in the first photo, and a Comice. But I wasn’t thinking yet about poached pears, or about the picture of my mother. That’s not how things work. It was only today, a day after they were made, as I sat down with a bowl and a spoon and the last pear with chocolate sauce, that I realized there was nothing original about what I was doing, that I thought of my mother in her curls, with her silver platter. She went home on Sunday, but I know she would approve.
I can’t remember what recipe my mother uses for her pears, though I think it involves red wine. For mine, I credit Nigel Slater. His books are what I pick up first when I need an idea, and that was the scene yesterday, when I noticed that my pears were rapidly veering toward overripe. He has a number of poached pear recipes, including one that uses Sauternes and one that uses maple syrup and one that’s to be served with pomegranate sorbet, but I chose the version on page 1017, because it came with the following enticement: “…[T]he pears are poached in a light sugar syrup till almost translucent and the chocolate comes in the form of a warm, flowing sauce.” Warm, flowing sauce!!! DING DING DING.
As poached pear recipes go, this one could be called plain: just pears, water, brown sugar (or golden caster sugar, if you have it), a vanilla bean, and lemon juice. But what I like about it is that you wind up with a poached pear that tastes intensely of pear. The end. You could add some spices or switch out the water for wine, of course, but then you’ve got a whole other experience. The point here is the pear itself, soft enough to cut with a spoon. Once you’ve got that, you put it in a bowl, and then you make a chocolate sauce – a ganache, really – with cream, a little coffee, and a sliver of butter, and while it’s still warm, you spoon it on top. You can take it from there.
But I should also tell you about something I noticed today, when I ate the last pear. I warmed the leftover chocolate sauce, but the pear was still cold from the refrigerator, and as it turns out, that’s a very, very nice combination. The sauce cooled immediately when it hit the pear, and rather than being thin and fluid, it turned to something like well-stirred sour cream, or a very smooth toothpaste. I know that sounds revolting, but it really feels terrific when your teeth sink through it. Think frosting. In any case, it’s not my mother’s pear, but it’s elegant in its way. I like it very much.
Any good, ripe pear should work here, but I particularly like Comice.
Note that the chocolate sauce below is actually half the amount of Slater’s original recipe. (His uses 200 grams of chocolate, and so on.) When I tried his recipe, I used only three pears, and in the interest of not wasting ingredients or having a lot of leftovers, I decided to make a half batch of the chocolate sauce. l found that I had more than enough to go around, so I’ve typed up the recipe that way. It should be fine for four pears. But if you want to be guaranteed a real abundance of chocolate – and I wouldn’t blame you – you might want to double the quantities.
For the chocolate sauce:
Combine the sugar, water, vanilla bean, and lemon juice in a medium (3-quart, let’s say) saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and leave to simmer gently. Meanwhile, peel the pears, cut them in half from stem to blossom, and remove the cores with a sharp knife and a teaspoon. Slip them into the simmering syrup, and let them cook gently until they are tender to the point of a knife. You’ll see that as they cook, they begin to look somewhat translucent, more yellow than white. That’s what you want. They should take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to cook, and if some are ready before others, just lift them out and transfer them to a plate. When all the pears are tender, take the pan off the heat, put back any pears that you’ve taken out, and leave them to cool in the syrup.
When you’re ready to eat, put the chocolate into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan with the coffee and the cream. Warm slowly over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate has melted. Once the chocolate has softened, stir until it is very smooth. Then stir in the butter. Remove the pan from the heat.
Drain the pears, and put them in bowls or a serving dish. Serve with the warm sauce alongside, so that each diner can pour on as much as he or she wants.
Note: Any sauce left over can be warmed gently in a microwave – be sure to give it a stir every 10 seconds, and don’t let it get too hot – or over a double boiler.
Yield: 4 servings