The year was 1921, the place Ellis Island. My maternal grandmother, single, arrives into port from Napoli on the ship Patria to be with her sister...
Whether it is the stone fruits of summer, such as peaches, apricots, even cherries, or that most glorious fruit of the colder months, the pear, poaching is a simple, age-old method of preparing the fruit.
Poaching is a simple technique. Here, pears are peeled, set in a saucepan and submerged in a sweetened, flavored liquid, and cooked until softened. One can poach fruit all year round, but there is something so very elegant and comforting about pears enrobed in sweet syrup and served after a winter’s feast.
The possibilities for poaching liquids are endless. You can use sweetened water, fruit juice or almost any variety of wine. Red, white, sweet, dry, bubbly or still, one is limited only by the imagination. For even greater flavor variation, vanilla beans or spices such as cinnamon, allspice, cloves, or star anise, even a few black peppercorns can be added to the poaching liquid. A strip or two of orange or lemon zest adds even more flavor. Poaching brings out the floral sweetness in pears, enriching and transforming even less than perfect fruit into a delectable dessert. Select firm pears, such as Bosc, free of imperfections and with long, firmly attached stems.
Sweet wines impart a unique succulence to fruit, and these days wonderful and surprisingly inexpensive sweet wines abound. Try Passito from tiny Pantelleria. The volcanic soil of this windswept island near Sicily gives rise to one of Italy’s most wonderful grapes, Zibbibo, from which this fine dessert wine is made. Harvested in late August and September, the grapes for this DOC wine are left out on mats to dry, a wine making technique known as “appassimento”. These complex wines are sweet, somewhat dark in color and complement the pears beautifully. The poaching liquid is reduced to a thick vanilla-flecked amber syrup, cloaking the pears with the wine’s precious essence.
The pears may be served warm, at room temperature or chilled. A dollop of Mascarpone Cream flavored with Mugolio adds extra dimension to this dessert. Mugolio is a thick syrup made from the buds of the mountain pine. In May, high in the Dolomites the buds are gathered, set in pots and left to cure under the summer sun. The nectar is mixed with sugar and cooked, transforming into a sweet resinous elixir, redolent of pine and sweet rosemary, a delightful addition to the Mascarpone Cream, and a sophisticated accompaniment to the poached pears.
Poached Pears with Mascarpone Cream
•4 Bosc pears
•1 bottle (500 ml) Passito di Pantelleria
•3 cups water
•1 cup granulated sugar
•1 3 inch strip of lemon peel, white pith removed
•1 vanilla bean, split
•juice of 2 lemons
•1 cinnamon stick and 2 star anise, optional
•8 ounces Mascarpone
•7-8 tablespoons heavy cream
•2 tablespoons superfine sugar
•½ teaspoon vanilla extract
•2-4 tablespoons Mugolio
Fill a large bowl ¾ full with cool water and add lemon juice. This acidulated water will prevent the pears from oxidizing and taking on a brownish tinge. Peel the pears, placing each in the acidulated water as you proceed. Preserve the stem if the pears will be served whole. If you will serve the pears halved or quartered, core and halve them at this point. Use a melon baller to remove the seeds, and a paring knife to trim and remove any fibrous sections.
Combine the wine, water, and sugar in a 4-quart high sided saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce to a gentle simmer. Add the lemon peel, split vanilla bean, spices (if using), and the prepared pears.
Cut a circle of parchment paper large enough to cover the surface of the saucepan and place it atop the pears to keep them covered and moist. Keeping the liquid at a very lazy simmer, poach fruit until a paring knife slides in easily, about twenty to thirty minutes, less if the pears have been cut. (The recipe may be completed up to this point a day in advance. Remove and discard the lemon zest, vanilla bean, and any spices. Transfer the pears and their poaching liquid to a glass container, being sure pears are submerged. Place a fresh piece of parchment atop the pears. Dampen the parchment with poaching liquid and cover the container tightly with two layers of plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.)
To serve, remove the pears from the saucepan or storage container and position them on the serving plates. Remove vanilla bean, lemon peel and any spices from poaching liquid. Increase the heat to high. Bring the poaching liquid to a boil and reduce it to a syrupy consistency.
Meanwhile, make the Mascarpone Cream. Place mascarpone, cream, sugar, vanilla, and Mugolio, if using, in a medium bowl. Whisk gently to combine. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Arrange the pears on the serving plates. Pour the reduced poaching liquid over the pears. Add a dollop of Mascarpone Cream and serve.
Ipsus Passito di Pantelleria is available at Trader Joe’s
Mugolio Pine Bud Syrup is available from Olio2go