Special occasions call for the kind of presentation that you get from this pear tart with pistachio cream.
Pears are the first fruit I can remember really liking. Texture is really important to children. When I was young, fruit mostly came from a can after summer was done. To my 6 year old palate, canned fruit reached new lows only exceeded by canned peas and lima beans. It was wet. It didn’t taste like fruit.
The best of the lot, bar none, were the canned pears.
Now this was a fruit that a six year old could appreciate. Pears had an absolutely perfect texture: completely soft but with a sort of rich feeling on the tongue that was neither jiggly nor mushy. They had a gorgeous pale white colour with a tinge of yellow that looked even more beautiful with chocolate sauce dribbled over the top.
Fast forward to adulthood and fresh fruit. A perfectly fresh, ripe Niagara Bartlett pear is spectacular. The beautiful yellow speckled peel adds scent and just the right amount of bite to the soft, smooth texture on the inside. The problem is that finding a perfectly ripe pear is like winning the jackpot. They ripen from the inside, so a pear that seems perfectly firm but not hard to the touch may be mushy in the center.
Poaching is a wonderful technique for using a basket of pears when they are still a little too hard to eat fresh. You just simmer the pears in wine with a combination of spices to taste such as citrus peel, cinnamon sticks, cloves and star anise. Regard the recipe below as a suggestion only. Although this is the first time I’ve made this tart, I poach pears quite frequently and change the spice combinations every time I do it. After the pears have been poached, extract and cool the fruit, leaving the poaching liquid in the pan to reduce to a syrupy consistency. You can stop right there and have a wonderful light dessert of poached pears drizzled with the reduction. It’s a simple, light and elegant dessert option after a heavy meal, or if you have guests who are avoiding gluten.
This tart is a real production number, but it was for Thanksgiving dinner. When else do you make stuff like that? The result was pretty spectacular.
The recipe is from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: from my home to yours. There had been a sticky on the page for years. Every year I decided it was too much work until I found myself with a basket of hard Niagara Bartlett pears from the farmer’s market and a bag of pistachios, which is just what the recipe needs.
The poaching transformed the texture of the hard as rock pears to perfection.
The pistachio pastry cream was delicious, but the method in the original recipe resulted in a custard that was as thick as wallpaper paste. I have altered the recipe below to add more milk so that you will get a nice creamy texture that is not too thick. Her method also includes an option where you don’t strain the nuts out of the custard. I really prefer a smooth custard so I didn’t use that option, and it is not reflected below.
Her recipe calls for caramelizing the pistachios, but I thought that was over the top. I opted to just toast the pistachios instead.
I have had several long talks with wine consultants at the LCBO about which wines to use for poaching pears. The trick is to select a wine good enough to drink but not so expensive that you wince when you boil it in a pot with citrus peel and spices. We agreed on a fruity zinfandel that worked really well. This is the one I used:
Sweet Tart Dough
Tart crusts look so impressive but are even easier than pie crusts: no rolling pin required!! You just press this crust right into the pan with your fingers.
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 9 tbsp unsalted butter (very cold or frozen, cut into small pieces)
- 1 egg yolk
Whir flour, sugar and salt in food processor for a few seconds, just to combine. Scatter the butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until butter coarsely cut in. Beat the yolk lightly and add it to the food processor, dribbling in a bit at a time and pulsing a bit after each addition. Once the egg is in, process in long 10 second pulses until the dough clumps together. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and lightly knead the dough to incorporate anything that wasn’t mixed in properly.
Butter a 9″ fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough over the bottom and up the sides. Try not to work the dough too much so it doesn’t become tough. I focus on making sure that there is enough dough up the sides to form a good strong side crust. Once it’s pressed in, I roll a straight sided glass around the inside rim of the tart shell and then along the top rim so that the finished crust will have a really nice, smooth, even surface.
Cover the crust with parchment paper or tin foil and put it in the freezer for at least half an hour. If you are preparing far in advance, you could wrap it up well and leave it in the freezer for a month. Do NOT be tempted to skip the minimum half hour freezing. This is critical to the final baking. This is the step that helps prevent your crust from shrinking or puffing up during baking. If you don’t freeze it thoroughly here, you would need to use pie weights to bake the crust later.
Partial baking: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter the shiny side of a sheet of aluminum foil and press the buttered side down tightly against the crust. Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil. If the crust has puffed, gently push it down with the back of a spoon. I have found that occasionally the sides of the crust may start to slide down the side of the pan. I use a soft implement like the back of a plastic spoon to gently press it back up the sides of the pan so that the finished crust will be able to hold the filling. For a partially baked crust, you would stop at this point.
Fully baked crust: This pear tart requires a fully baked crust, so after removing the tin foil continue to bake for another 8 minutes or until the crust is as golden brown as you want it. Transfer to a rack and cool crust to room temperature before filling a fully baked crust.
Pear Tart with Pistachio Cream
Pears poached in red wine on a pistachio cream base
- 2/3 cup shelled unsalted pistachios
- 7 tbsp sugar
- 2 cups milk
- 4 egg yolks
- 3 tbsp corn starch
- 3/4 tsp vanilla
- 2 tbsp cold, unsalted butter (cut into 4 pieces)
- 3 cups fruity zinfandel
- zest of 1 orange (removed in wide strips)
- zest of 1 lemon (removed in wide strips)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 5 ripe but firm medium pears (I prefer Bartlett pears, and honestly, they're being poached so the pears can be less than ripe and it will come out fine)
- 1/2 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
- poaching syrup from the pears
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
To Make the Pastry Cream
Grind the pistachios and 3 tablespoons of the sugar in a food process until nuts finely ground, about 1 minute. Turn the nuts into a medium sized heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the milk and bring to a boil.
While the milk is heating, whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons sugar with the yolks and the cornstarch in a bowl. When they are well blended, whisk in the vanilla extract. Temper the yolks by whisking a drizzle of the hot milk into them so that the temperature rises without scrambling the eggs. Then add the rest of the milk and whisk it all together. Pour it all back into the saucepan and bring it to a boil, whisking constantly over medium heat. Continue whisking while it boils for one minute or until it thickens.
Scrape the pastry cream through a strainer into a clean bowl. Honestly? Straining the cream was the hardest part of the entire recipe as the custard was very thick. Piece by piece, stir by the butter pats into the pastry cream. Press a piece of plastic wrap right onto the surface of the cream so that it will not form a skin. Cover and refrigerate for up to 4 days until you put the tart together.
To Poach the Pears:
Put wine, citrus zests and sugar in a pot that will hold the pears snugly, and bring to a boil. While the wine is heating, peel the pears but leave them whole. Rub them with the lemon so that they don’t turn dark in the air. Reduce the heat under the pot so that the wine is simmering gently and lower the pears in Partially cover the pot and simmer, turning the pears as needed so they are evenly tinted by the wine syrup, for about 30 minutes or until tender. Because I used hard, unripe pears, this step took me 1 hour and 15 minutes. Test the pears by poking them with the point of a paring knife, and remove from heat. Transfer the pears to a heatproof container and pour the poaching syrup on them. Cool to room temperature. Keep in the fridge, covered in syrup, for up to 3 days.
While the tart shell is baking, put the pistachios in the oven for 5 or 6 minutes until they are fragrant but not burned.
For the sauce
Before you assemble the tart, remove the pears from the poaching syrup. Pour the syrup into a pot with the honey and the lemon juice. Boil until the syrup is thick enough to coat a metal spoon. Pour the syrup into a container and chill.
To Assemble the Tart
Cut the pears lengthwise in half. Scoop out the cores and trim stems and center veins. Drain the pears between a triple thickness of paper towels. Change the towels if necessary until excess liquid is absorbed. Cut each pear half lengthwise into 4 – 6 slices.
Spread the cream into the crust. Arrange the pear slices in a pinwheel or other nice design. Scatter the toasted pistachios on top. Pass a pitcher of the reduction sauce at the table for people to pour themselves.
I won’t lie. This was time consuming to make. None of the steps were difficult, but it required a lot of advanced planning and preparation. Thanksgiving can be so busy and the oven can be full, so I split it up over several days. Here’s my recommendation:
3 days before: prepare the crust, fit it into the tart pan and freeze it. Shell the pistachios. I’m allergic to peanuts but not tree nuts. I can eat pistachios but most of them come with a “may contain peanuts” warning label, so I shell them by hand. This way I know exactly what I’m getting –but it does take time.
2 days before: make the pistachio pastry cream. Put it in the fridge with plastic wrap pressed to the top so it doesn’t develop a skin. Poach the pears and put them in the fridge in the poaching liquid.
1 day before: Bake the crust and put it in the fridge wrapped in plastic wrap once it’s cooled. Take advantage of the warm oven and toast the pistachios while the crust is baking. Drain off the poaching liquid from the pears and create the reduction sauce. Put it back in the fridge.
The day of your event, a few hours before you will serve: Compose the tart and put the reduction sauce in a pitcher to serve at the table.