Unlike apples, pears are all picked from their trees before they are ripe. If left to ripen on the tree, Bartletts and Boscs, Crimsons and Comices, D’Anjous and Seckels do so from the inside out, a situation that renders their innards mushy well before the outer fruit is pleasingly tender. Hearty varieties of pears being picked right now in Maine, Michigan, Oregon and Washington state are fully formed, but hard to the core and remain so in cold storage. It’s a condition that makes them fit for travel from either the West Coast or from the farmers market down the road to the fruit bowl on your counter. But it’s not one that keeps an impatient pear lover like me very happy.

A pear is ready to eat when the flesh at the base of the stem gives slightly when pressed. I tend to check early and often – dare I say, hourly? – squeezing them gingerly enough so as not to leave a mark. I’m looking for that point at which they’ll slice cleanly but still have juice enough to run down my chin. Too soon and the bitter tannins will not yet be tamed, too late and the flesh is a bruised mealy mess. I’m not going to lie.  More that 50 percent of the time, I miss my mark.

The moment fresh pears land in the bowl on my counter, the waiting game begins. Pears, in general, start to ripen when held between 65 and 75 degrees. How long it takes to reach full ripeness depends on the variety. According to the Oregon State University Cooperative Extension, Bartlett pears ripen in four to five days, for example, while Bosc and Comice pears need five to seven days.

Meanwhile, they just sit there on the counter, in an heirloom wooden bowl, in the waning afternoon light. It’s a classic autumnal scene, for sure. But the serenity is misleading because one never knows if today, tomorrow or sometime next week will be THE day these persnickety pomes are finally going to be ripe. Personally, I believe pears can taunt a person. They know when I’ll be out for a 10-hour clip and perfect themselves early within that window, making me miss the pinnacle of ripeness on purpose. It’s pure pear chicanery if you ask me.

The internet and most grandmothers offer up tips on how to manipulate the ripening process, so pears are closer to perfect when you want to serve them on a cheese board, and not days after the dinner guests have hit the road. Place them in a paper (not plastic) bag to speed up the process from as many as 7 days to as few as 2, for example. Better yet, place them in a paper bag with a couple of ripe apples, so the ethylene gas naturally emitted by the apples ripen the pears in one day’s time.

Bosc pears poached in a Earl Grey tea syrup. The pears can be prepared ahead for use whenever you need them. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Since patience is a virtue for which I lack deep reserves, I poach them. I peel the under-ripe pears (leaving the stems on for artistic effect), core them with a melon baller, and give them a 30-minute warm bath in a syrup made with 4 cups water (or wine) and 1 ½ cups sugar (or 1 cup honey) to make them fork tender. The flavors steeped into the poaching liquid can range from saffron, cardamom and lemon to Earl Grey tea and vanilla. Other combinations I like include chili and rosemary and Riesling and brown sugar.  The pears keep in the fridge, covered with the poaching liquid, for up to 10 days. There they are always ready to be sliced into salads, make a statement on a cheeseboard or sweeten my morning bowl of plain yogurt. No waiting necessary.

So there, pear!

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

A cross section of Poached Pear, Chocolate and Hazelnut Cake. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Poached Pear, Chocolate and Hazelnut Cake

Serves 8

FOR THE POACHED PEARS:

5 Earl Grey tea bags
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split, or 1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste
3 medium or 4 small Bosc pears (best to pick ones with the stem still on), peeled and cored with a melon baller from the bottom

FOR THE CHOCOLATE CAKE:

½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, more for greasing the pan
1 1/3 cup (200 g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (50 g) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup whole milk
⅓ cup sour cream
3 tablespoons cold, dark coffee
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup chopped hazelnuts
Confectioners’ sugar, to garnish
Vanilla ice cream, to serve

To poach the pears, bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium pot. Turn off the heat, add the tea bags or leaves and let the tea steep. Remove the tea bags, add the sugar to the pot, and stir to dissolve. Add the peeled pears (and vanilla bean if using) to the pot.

Set the pot over medium-high heat, once the liquid boils, reduce the heat to medium-low and let the pears simmer until tender, 20-25 minutes. It’s important to keep the pears fully submerged.  To accomplish this, I invert the saucepan’s lid and place it on the pan. Once the pears are tender, carefully remove them from the pot and set them aside on a plate or in a bowl to cool while you make the cake. (NOTE: the poaching liquid can be reduced by half to be served as a sauce. To reduce it, let it cook at a medium boil until it’s concentrated and slightly syrupy.)

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place a rack in the middle of the oven. Grease a 9- by 5-inch loaf tin lightly with butter. Line the pan with a parchment paper sling with overhang on both sides.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. In a measuring cup, whisk together the milk, sour cream and coffee.

Place the butter in a large bowl and use an electric mixer to beat it until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the brown sugar and beat it into the butter until combined, about 1 minute. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix until well incorporated.

Add in half of the flour mixture and half of the milk mixture. Mix on low speed until well incorporated. Add in the remaining flour and milk mixtures and continue to mix on low speed until the chocolate batter is just combined.

Set the whole poached pears into the chocolate cake batter for a dramatic presentation. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Use a generous 1/2 cup of batter to line the bottom of the prepared loaf tin. Place the poached pears, bottom side down in the batter. Spoon the remaining chocolate batter around the pears. Sprinkle hazelnuts around the top of the cake. Bake the cake until the top springs gently back when touched, 40 to 45 minutes, then transfer it to a wire cooling rack. Let the loaf cool for 20 minutes, then remove it from the tin.

Cool the loaf completely before sprinkling confectioners’ sugar over the top before slicing and serving with vanilla ice cream and some of the reduced poaching liquid.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.