This holiday back-pocket dessert goes out to all you non-bakers, and anyone who's feeling a bit tuckered from the more elaborate, delayed-gratification baking projects of the holiday season. There is no delaying of gratification here.
With 5 ingredients and about 20 minutes, you'll have a pure, joyful dessert that looks festive as all get out, which you will have casually winged together as others clear the table or between rounds of after-dinner charades. Your guests will descend upon it, hungry for a respite from pie and cake and all the holiday heft.
The recipe is Baked Caramel Pears from Lindsey Shere—pastry chef at Chez Panisse for 27 years and the author of the Chez Panisse Desserts—and has a long, but long-dormant pedigree: Florence Fabricant wrote about it in the New York Times in 1993, Marion Cunningham in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998. Almost two decades later, it's time we resurrect it.
Its genius is in harnessing a small amount of butter and sugar to do their good work twice—first, by basting the pears in the oven, coaxing them along as they sweeten and singe.
In their next act, the butter and sugar pour off into the bottom of the pan, where they form a sticky toffee fond, that you then use as the base of your caramel on the stovetop. "I think it's very important to have perfectly ripe juicy pears," Shere told me. "The pear juice is what makes the sauce delicious."
It's much more like cooking than it is like baking. You don't mix up an unpredictable batter or dough, put it away in an untouchable vessel and wait. Instead, you're slicing into pears and carving off scraps to taste. You're popping cold butter and sugar on top and watching it ooze and burble over the sides, brushing it back over the top whenever you feel like it.
You're cranking the flame and watching all the gooey dregs bubble until, at just the moment you choose, you dump in cold cream and watch it froth and steam and turn the whole pan of butter and sugar into molten sauce, effectively cleaning the bottom of the pan at once. There's no part that feels mysterious or distant; every stage is in your control; and the rewards are near-instant. Especially once you set the caramel pears in front of your charade-weary guests.
And even though it calls for making caramel, the act is entirely imprecise. I admit, I was intimidated at first too, until I made it 3 times in 2 days. I didn't have to do that—I just wanted to, and I was drunk on power!
Once, I halved the cream for a thinner, sweeter caramel. Other times, I took the caramel as far as I could, until the sugars crystallized and the butter broke and seeped out. But I just kept cooking, and dripped a little water into the pan while boiling and scraping and stirring, and it emulsified right back together. I break things so you don't have to!
Now, about the Comice pears. Shere recommends them, because they're tender but don't turn to mush, and sweet but with an important acidity to balance the rich caramel. The problem is, Comice isn't always easy to find, unless you (according to my research) are a) near a well-stocked bodega in New York City or b) have recently received a Harry & David gift pack.
But I tried with every other pear I could find, and I can recommend the Bartlett and the d'Anjou (less so the Forelle, and definitely not the Bosc). Former Gourmet Editor Jane Lear also really loves Warrens from Frog Hollow Farm for this.
I can't help, in 2015, but want to leave the pears unpeeled, to add a pinch of salt to the caramel, to roast the pears a little darker, to take the caramel as intense and toffee-colored as I can. This recipe was published thirty years ago, before our palates were trained to expect those extremes in flavor and texture. By 1993, although caramel was starting to trend, FloFab still felt she had to caution readers: "And no matter how tempting fresh hot caramel may look, tasting or even touching it is dangerous. It is searingly hot and sticks to the skin."
I was also tempted to rename it in today's style: Roasted Pears with Caramel and Toasted Almonds, which isn't technically incorrect. But this recipe is special just as it is, well-loved for decades now, and so Baked Caramel Pears it is.
Adapted slightly from Chez Panisse Desserts (Random House, 1985)
3 large, very ripe Comice pears (Barlett, D'Anjou, or Warren are good alternatives)
3 tablepoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup whipping cream
Pinch of salt, plus more flaky salt to serve (optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped pecans or almonds, lightly toasted
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Photos by James Ransom