For lunch I just served friends a favorite dessert–a superb dessert, fun and easy and elegant—and I want to tell you about it.
It’s from French Provincial Cooking and the incomparable English food writer, Elizabeth David. Initially published in 1960 (the year my first daughter was born), yes, I’ve been serving Poires étuvées au vin rouge–pears poached in sweetened red wine–for decades.
For some reason the recipe has been a well-kept secret. I’ve only seen these pears once on another’s table and inexplicably that was in a small Japanese restaurant in Santa Monica. Amazed, I asked the owner-chef where he found the recipe, he gave me an inscrutable look and vanished. However now with Google the French pears are out there and with variations…it wouldn’t make sense if I was alone in its admiration. But no variations from my kitchen.
What makes this dessert remarkable–beyond exquisite flavor and stunning look–is its simplicity.
Ease. I love Mrs. David’s opening comment: “A method of making the most cast-iron of cooking pears very delicious.” I hate standing in the market before a mountain of fruit carefully stacked by some overburdened produce person, trying to be ladylike as I pick up, examine fruit in search of ripeness, then set it down way high up atop the mountain. Pears are the worst. That’s because the ripeness test is with a thumbnail…if your nail easily goes into the blossom end, the pear is ripe. But that’s an unconscionable thing to do to a pear not to mention an unwitting pear-picker-upper. Unripe pears are identifiable virtually hands free. And there are (in my experience) lots of them.
More ease: just one step of preparation, gliding off the peels with a vegetable peeler. No coring. No simmering syrup. Peeling is it.
It’s a sensuous cook’s dessert. Hours of very slow baking perfume the rooms with warm fruity spirits. And it’s a hostess’s dream…a dessert made in advance that will be a knockout and until then won’t melt, fall, crack, or smoosh…
The French word “etuvée” translates a couple of ways: “casseroled” or “drunk.” A curious combination until you remember our English word, “crocked.”
French Pears Drunken in Red Wine…Poires étuvées au vin rouge from Elizabeth David
For each serving, choose one perfect hard-as-a-rock Bosc or Anjou pear with its stem on, selecting all close to the same size and shape. Weigh them together, note the weight.
Find an ovenproof ceramic or glass vessel in which you can fit all the pears standing, tall enough so the rim is higher than their tops. If there’s a gap, you can pop in an apple. (The pears conceivably can be baked lying on their sides, but they’ll finish so soft they could be misshapen, spoiling their handsome presentation.)
A day or two before serving–at a time when you’ll be home for hours–set the oven to 275 degrees.
Keeping stems intact, peel the pears with a vegetable peeler. Do not core (air in the center would make the pear float, and the core finishes so soft it can be eaten). Arrange the pears in the dish, tucking in an apple if need be–treat for the cook.
Per each pound of pears, sprinkle over 3 ounces (6 tablespoons / rounded 1/3 cup) granulated sugar. Pour over a fruity red wine* to come halfway up the pears. (For 6 Anjou pears I needed 1 cup sugar and 3 cups wine.) Add an equal amount of cool water to cover the fruit. With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula gently blend sugar, wine, and water.
Set the dish uncovered (so the syrup will reduce) in the center of the oven. As the syrup thickens, from time to time gently dunk the pears in the syrup so they’ll color evenly. After 5 to 7 hours, the pears will be a lustrous garnet mahogany and silky-soft (use a broom straw or cake tester). Moisten all over with their syrup, cover, refrigerate.
To serve, Mrs. David suggests, “The best way to present them is to pile them up in a pyramid, stalks uppermost, in a shallow bowl or a compotier on a pedestal.”
I pass a bowl of sour cream and a platter of sablés (short not-sweet) cookies.
French Provincial Cooking is a treasure. If you like French cooking, want to learn more about it, find a copy. Looking it up on AbeBooks, I was stunned to find fifteen editions, mostly soft-cover, modestly priced. There was a period in my writing life when I couldn’t buy it so I kept a hard-cover copy checked out of the UCLA library for one whole year. Elizabeth David was my inspiration.
*Pinot Noir, Merlot, Grenache, Malbec.