“Welcome to my office,” Ben says as we climb out of the car. Neat rows of pear trees stretch their limbs out of the morning mist. It’s kind of obnoxious, actually—does he have to brag?—when you consider that my “office” is a cube with padded, circa-1981 salmon pink walls. Ben, by contrast, makes his living here:We grab a ladder and start picking. The crew has been through here once already and most of the harvest is in—they’ll use it to make pear wine, which they then send to a local distillery to make pear brandy—but there are some stragglers. These get sold in the tasting room. We get to take home the “ugly” pears, the ones with spots or lumps or hard patches where they were damaged by insects. For the next couple weeks, bins of the fruit take up residence in our house, and I start thinking of pear pie and pear bread and pear butter.Pears catch us by surprise. We think of them like apples, which don’t start arriving until it’s bona fide autumn outside. Really, they can start ripening as early as July or August. They’re just as cider-rich as apples, but don’t have quite the same cellar-storage sweetness. As a pie, they’re the perfect bridge between the summer’s berries and stone fruits and the cold weather pie fillings of apples and winter squash. I’ve made this pie a few times already. It’s all about the pears. Cinnamon and cloves are still a bit too cozy for this time of year, so I kept it simple: a mountain of sliced fruit tossed just a bit in flour and sugar. The whole wheat crust is key; it’s the buttery, nutty backdrop to the cooked-sweet pears. But as with any glut of produce, you need to mix it up a bit even with a winner of a recipe. So I’m leaving you with the pie, first and foremost the pie! , but also with the rest of the ways we’ve been enjoying pears.
A simple pear pie, with detailed pie crust instructions
You will need
For the crust (yields 2 9-inch crusts; you will need one for the top and bottom of the pie):
1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
For the filling:
Approximately 5 cups of pears, peeled if you want or if the skin is particularly tough and thick, cored, halved lengthwise, and sliced thinly (about 1/8 to 1/4 inch slices)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup turbinado or demerara sugar (you can substitute light brown sugar, too)
For the egg wash:
1 egg, lightly beaten (optional)
Make the crust:
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, stir together flours and salt. Dredge the cubes of cold butter in the flour mixture so they don’t stick together. Working quickly, use your fingers to work the butter into the flour, taking the cubes of butter between your thumb and first two fingers and smashing them with a motion not unlike trying to brush sugar or flour off. The butter should be smushed into big, thin flakes in the flour mixture. Many recipes say that butter cut into flour for pie crust should look like “sandy pearls” or “pebbles”, but I think that’s misleading. You want butter, all shapes and sizes, in a very heterogeneous mixture. Some of the pieces should be quite big. You want pockets of butter in this pie dough.
In a liquid measuring cup, lightly beat the egg yolk with the vinegar. Fill the measuring cup the rest of the way to 1/2 cup with ice water, for a total of 1/2 cup of liquid. Add this mixture to the pie dough and stir to incorporate.
Work the mass very lightly with your hands. It should be very crumbly and almost not stick together. If you squeeze a handful, it should hold together briefly before crumbling. Do not worry if your pie dough, at this point, looks nothing like pie dough. It will be unrecognizable from pie dough, really. Gather up this shaggy mass, corralling bits of butter and flour that get away, and divide it into two piles. Place them each on plastic wrap, pressing the mass together into some semblance of a disc. Wrap it tightly in the plastic. Press down on it again to cohere the mixture a bit. Put the two wrapped discs of pie dough in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes (I usually go for about an hour).
Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, scatter the flour and sugar over the pears. Toss the pears in the flour and sugar mixture to coat as evenly as possible. Allow this mixture to macerate for a few minutes, until the pears juices start running. Toss it again to evenly distribute if necessary.
When it’s time, remove the pie dough from the refrigerator. On a well-floured surface, take one of the discs of dough you made, and attempt to roll it out with a rolling pin or, in a pinch, a wine bottle. It will not work. It will crack and crumble all over the place. The butter should be streaky throughout the mixture. As best you can, fold the cracked, flattened mixture over on itself once, and then again. If you have a pastry scraper (I actually don’t), it would be useful here for gathering up the crumbly dough and flipping it onto itself. Pressing the mixture back together, attempt to roll it out again. It should be slightly more cohesive, but still crack a lot. As you did the first time, fold it over onto itself, first in halves, then in quarters. Repeat this process one or two more times, working quickly so the butter doesn’t get too soft. The dough should be sticking together and rolling out smoothly by this point. Give it one more final roll-out, this time for keeps, until the dough is about 1/4 inch thick. Drape the dough over your rolling pin and carefully transfer it to a 9-inch pie dish. Gently tuck the dough into the dish. Using a sharp knife, neatly cut away the excess dough from the edges. Use the scraps to patch any tears the dough acquired while being fit into the dish.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Carefully spoon the filling into the dough-lined pie dish. Transfer the pie dish to the refrigerator while you roll out your second crust, in the same way you did the first. Drape the second crust over the entire pie pan. Crimp the edges of the bottom crust and top crust together all around the edges, sealing the filling in.
If you want to make a decorative braided crust like I used for the pie in the pictures (this is a little fussy, but I can’t make a pretty crimped pie edge to save my life), roll out the dough scraps into a long stretch of 1/8-inch to 1/4 inch thick dough. Using a sharp knife, slice them into thin ropes. Pinch three ropes together at the top and lay them on a flat surface. Gently braid them together. When you reach the end, pinch the ends together again. Wet your finger with water and run it along the edge of the pie where you want the braid to go. Lay the braid down on this wetted area, pushing the pinched ends into the existing crust. I typically have to make about 4 braids to go all the way around the pie.
If using an egg wash–optional, but makes the crust nice and golden—lightly beat an egg in a small bowl. Brush the egg over the top of the pie crust.
Immediately before putting the pie in the oven, cut several vents in the top crust with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape.
Bake the pie for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the pie crust is a deep golden color–almost darker than you think it should be—and the pear juices are oozing out of the vents. Start checking the pie at 1 hour to see if the edges are getting dark faster than the rest of the crust. If this is the case, cover the edges with aluminum foil for the remainder of baking.
Allow the pie to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. I think it’s best when allowed to cool completely.
Pear & fennel salad
This is adapted from Molly Wizenberg; who adapted it from Alice Waters
You will need
1 medium fennel bulb
1-2 Asian pears, cored, halved, and thinly sliced
A fruity olive oil
A flaky salt
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
3-4 cups fresh peppery greens, like arugula, or crunchy, textured greens, like frisee (optional)
Prepare the fennel. Cut off any feathery fronds and discard them. Rinse the bulb under cool water, and dry it. Cut the bulb in half lengthwise, and trim the root end. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice the fennel as thinly you can.
Assemble the pears and fennel in layers on a large platter, drizzling olive oil over the fennel and sprinkling lemon juice and salt over the pears. Periodically, use a vegetable peeler to shave thin slices of parmigiano into the mix. Repeat until you run out of fennel and pears. Finish with a bit of all the condiments: drizzle of oil, squeeze of lemon, shavings of cheese, sprinkle of salt, and grind black pepper over the whole thing. Molly’s version stands alone this way, but I also like it tossed in greens for a bigger salad with crusty bread on the side.
Pear spice cake
This recipe is adapted from a pear upside-down cake in Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors. She bakes it in a cast iron skillet, which sounds beautiful. We messed up the initial step and didn’t coat the pears in a syrup mixture, so I improvised and our cake became a Bundt-style with the pear pieces dispersed throughout. It is good. It is a very dark cake, and benefits both from a hot cup of coffee and some ice cream or loose, lightly sweetened whipped cream.
You will need
3 Asian pears, cored, halved lengthwise and cut into chunky slices
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus a little more for greasing the cake pan
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup molasses
3 tablespoons strong coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 heaping tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom<
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Cream the butter with the sugar. Add the molasses, coffee, vanilla, and grated ginger, and combine. Add the egg and beat until smooth. Add the buttermilk and stir until smooth.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture (you can use an electric mixer but at this point, a wooden spoon is fine). Scrape the bottom to make sure there are no unincorporated dry ingredients. Stir the pear pieces gently into the batter.
Butter and flour a Bundt pan. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the cake batter into the pan. Bake until the cake has risen and is pulling away from the sides of the pan, 30 to 35 minutes.
Allow the cake to cool for ten minutes. Run a butter knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Place a plate on top of the Bundt pan, and in one swift motion, invert the cake. Hopefully, you should hear a soft thump. If not. keep the pan on the plate and thwack it a little with the butter knife. The cake should release.
Goes very nicely with vanilla ice cream.