Last week, I received a charming email from a nice woman who wrote to tell me how much her family has enjoyed this blog. Letters like this just thrill me. I still am surprised, amazed, grateful and downright shocked you all come here to read about what I’m cooking.
Turned out Wendy and her family were coming to visit DC from Pulaski, Tennessee, and hoped they could bring me some pears from their 100 year old trees. Wendy and I exchanged emails and then had a wonderful (hilarious) telephone conversation. She was standing on a ladder picking pears and cows were circling the tree, evidently hoping for some windfall fruit.
A few days later, I met them all – Danny and Wendy and their two delightful kids, Carleigh and Noah – on Capital Hill. We met for excellent pizza by the slice at Spike Mendelson’s new spot We The Pizza. Noah really hoped to see Spike, but he was nowhere to be found. The pizza was great. And the family was just wonderful.
Warm, funny hard-working farmers, they raise Berkshire hogs and now, mostly sell to restaurants and, evidently, feed a lot of people through their church.They had wonderful stories of their 1794 farmhouse, the odd little outbuildings, the orchards, their livestock, and their small town. It would be wonderful to be their neighbor. By the end of lunch, I just wanted to hug them all.
After lunch, we went to their truck where they unloaded a huge basket of pears and four gorgeous Berkshire pork bellies. (One of those is already becoming bacon, using this terrific how-to from Michael Ruhlman.) As a final treat, Wendy handed me a jar of “greasy grits beans,” promising silky, tender, tasty beans that will rock my world. Her last bit of advice was to hold back a few beans to plant next summer.
I dropped the family off at the Natural History museum and went home to contemplate this incredible bounty.
The pears were like nothing I’d ever seen. Spotted and greenish. Hard as rocks, but ripe. Scentless until cooked. I cut a couple of them up and sauteed them in butter to see what happened. They held their shape just beautifully. Preserves seemed like a good direction, and I turned to Christine Ferber for inspiration.
Pear with Caramel and Spices called to me, but had too many steps. I revised the technique just a bit, made it twice and then again the next day with my class. It’s a great recipe that makes you think of Christmas with spicy, toasty caramel flavors.
With the rest of the bounty, I made a pear sauce, like apple sauce, but with pears. Rough chopped, cooked for an hour to soften, then put it through a food mill to create a basic sauce. I flavored it with honey, lemon, cinnamon, star anise and vanilla bean then put it in a 200° oven for 14 hours, until it had reduced by about half. It’s delicious and very pear-y and cooking it overnight with the aroma filling the house made for particularly sweet dreams.
PS Wendy, of all the gifts you brought that day, Beans the cat likes the pear basket best. Of course, she won’t stay in there when I have my camera with me, only when I can’t find the camera, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
Caramel Pear Preserves
Recipe from Christine Ferber’s Mes Confitures
But I fiddled with the technique and spices
Makes 5-6 half pints
2-3/4# firm, ripe pears
2-3/4 c sugar and 1-1/2 c sugar
1/4-1/2 tsp quatre epices*
7 oz orange juice
Juice of one lemon
1 packet liquid pectin or 6 oz homemade apple pectin
Wash, peel, core and cut the pears in a fine julienne
Mix the pears with the 2-3/4c sugar, spices and the juices
Allow this mixture to macerate while you make the caramel.
In a preserving pan or 5 qt heavy stockpot, over low heat, slowly dry melt the 1-1/2 c sugar. Allow it to turn color from golden to a deeper amber color. It will smell like caramel (not like burned sugar.) Don’t rush this process. Take it slowly. You shouldn’t need to stir it much, if at all.
OK, here’s the really scary part. The part that will make you think you’ve wrecked it all.
Pour in the pears and all the liquid. The caramel will break. It will make you cry a little.
Don’t worry. Just heat the whole mixture up slowly. You’re going to bring it up to 221° which will take awhile. And stir it – a lot – trying to get those pieces of caramel off the bottom of the pot and incorporated into the preserves. It’s a hellish moment. Just know that I had it, too.
By the time the preserves is at 221°, the caramel will be incorporated and it will be heavenly.
You’ll smell those spices. You’ll be happy again.
Add the pectin and bring it back up to a full boil you can’t stir down and let it boil, stirring all the while, for a full minute.
Ladle into jars, wipe the rims well, place lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
*Quatre Epices is used in all sorts of French sausages and terrines. I like the little bite of white pepper blended with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. It’s a nice blend to have in the cupboard – lovely with pears, nice with winter squashes. Give it a try.