Fruit-based desserts rank high for me as a delicious ending to an elegant dinner with friends. They satisfy my sweet tooth while not being too filling. And as a figment of my imagination I believe they are good for you. This recipe for Poached Pears with Creme Anglaise and Almond Brittle is easy to prepare in advance, looks elegant on the plate, and is actually quite low in fat, since I prepare my Creme Anglaise with fat-free milk. Let’s get started:
Half a pear per person, peeled and core removed (if you serve only a 1-to-2 courses before dessert and/or have hungry eaters, you can of course do a full pear per person).
A stick of cinnamon
3 pieces of star anise
4 or 5 cloves
3/4 cup of sugar
1 bottle of red wine
It’s easier than you think to poach pears. Dump all ingredients in a pot. Ensure that the pears are covered by liquid, but just barely—add a little more wine if you need to. Simmer at a low bubble for about 30 minutes. You want the pears soft but not so soft that they fall apart. I poke a knife in them at the end of the cooking time to check—you might need a little bit more cooking if you feel resistance from your poke, etc. The key to success here is, a) to choose the right pears and, b) to choose an appropriate red wine. Pear-wise I go with the firmer type, like a Bartlett, but have had success with others as well. So maybe just go with what looks best (but firm) at the store. Wine-wise you will want to use one that would enjoy drinking, so don’t go too low-rent. Then again, a $100 burgundy would be a little extravagant. I picked a Cote du Rhone for about $15. Yes, it seems pricey (well, maybe not in NYC!), but I will try to reuse the cooking liquid as a base for a fruit soup within a few days.
Once the pears are cooked I turn off the heat and let the fruit cool, leaving it in the cooking liquid. Your kitchen now should smell of wonderful wintery spices: cinnamon, star anise and clove… Leave the pears in the liquid until you are ready to serve them.
1 1/2 cups of slivered almonds
1 cup of sugar
1/4 cup of heavy cream
In order to create the brittle you need to first cook the caramel. For this I first put a little water in a heavy-bottomed pot, just enough to coat the bottom. This somehow helps to create a smooth caramel without crystallization. In goes the sugar. Melt the sugar on medium heat until you achieve the right golden brown color. If the caramel is too light you will miss out on flavor; if it is overdone you will taste charcoal. Neither is desirable! As soon as you detect the right color, take the pot off the heat and add the heavy cream, in one big swoop. You will cause a slightly frightening bubbling in the pan. The heavy cream is necessary; without it the caramel would harden to a glass-like consistency that would not be pleasant to eat. Experiment over time with the amount of cream: too much and you create a more toffee-like consistency, too little will create a hard caramel. Regardless of amount, make sure you stir well to achieve a smooth texture.
Pour the caramel onto a half-sheet pan. I use a silicone mat (like a Silpat) in the pan, which prevents the caramel from sticking. If you don’t have a Silpat (you really should have one…), spray the pan with a non-stick spray to achieve the same effect. While your caramel is still a hot liquid, sprinkle the almonds in. Done is the brittle—it is that easy! I put the sheet pan in the freezer to ensure the brittle is crisp and easy to break when I plate the dessert.
1 vanilla pod
1/2 cup of sugar
2 cups of skim milk (ideally a super creamy type, like Skim Plus from Parmelat)
1 or 2 egg yolks
Creme Anglaise is a classic dessert sauce. You can find recipes for it everywhere. I try to save some calories here (for summer is coming…), while not sacrificing the wholesome, creamy sauce texture. Cut the vanilla pod lengthwise and scape out the seeds. Pod and seeds go into a pot with the milk and the sugar. Bring to a simmer (avoid rapid cooking of the milk) and let the vanilla steep for 10 mins in the milk. In a heat-proof bowl mix the egg yolks with a little of the hot milk mixture. This is called tempering the eggs and it avoids shocking the egg yolks, which you’d do if you were to just drop them into the hot milk. The egg yolk/milk mixture goes into the pot. Now starts the part where you need to pay attention to the cooking. You want to slowly heat the mixture and constantly stir. At some point you will see that the milk is thickening. When it has the desired texture, take it off the heat and pour into a heat-proof bowl. I like to strain the sauce while pouring. This way you get the vanilla pod out and any tiny pieces of hardened egg that formed in the cooking process. (If you really overheat, the mixture will curdle and create… a very sweet scrambled egg. If this happens, you either have to start over or grab a store-bought equivalent. I recommend the former—besides the superior taste, practice makes perfect!)
How will we serve this multi-component dessert? Generally speaking, I think that perfecting the art of the dinner party necessitates that you develop a routine, effective plating method. You want to create beautiful plates but you need to perform this relatively quickly, so that neither the food gets cold nor are your guests kept waiting for too long. At this point in the dinner, however, they may well be reasonably alcoholized (I should probably just say ‘hydrated’), which means you’ll have a little more time to be precise with your plating. As you can see, I put all my plates in a row and do mass production, one component at a time. First I slice the pears, leaving each half together at the top of the pear. This way they get that fan-look. The sauce goes on next. Last is the piece of brittle.
My most recent attempt at Poached Pears with Creme Anglaise and Almond Brittle was a full and memorable success. Even the die-hard chocolate-only dessert fans loved them. You gotta try this recipe.