By now, you’ve probably got the idea that I’m not big on sweets. It’s true. I really don’t think about them much — except, of course, to long for See’s candy around the holidays (especially the dark chocolate covered marzipan). I don’t dream about cakes, or yearn to spend a Sunday baking cookies, and my mind’s palate does not waste its time tasting phantom pies. Nope. Definitely not a dessert person. Oh sure, I’ll have some ice cream now and then, and when there’s company, I’ll serve out a dish of it with a little capful of Grand Marnier spilled on top, just to dress it up a little, at not much extra hassle to the cook. And sometimes when I’m alone, what I really want after my meal is a big piece of toasted New Sammy’s sourdough bread, slathered with butter and either honey or raspberry jam — although that probably hardly counts as a sweet to a true dessert person.
On the other contradictory hand, I have always been annoyed by recipes that say things like: “Of course, this dish is so rich, that you should serve nothing but fresh fruit to follow.” Oh yeah, sure, I think to myself when I read that. Fresh fruit. Like they’re serving that themselves.
But the truth is, I do like a little fresh fruit after a meal. In fact, a lot of lunches get finished off with an apple or a pear sliced up and put on the table between me and the husband while we read our respective luncheon reading material. Or a handful of cherries. Or a bowl of just washed grapes. Or (best) a few fresh ripe figs. I mean, if I look at it objectively, I really shouldn’t get so annoyed when I read that recommendation about fresh fruit. I really shouldn’t think of it as just Nazi calorie policing.
I eat a lot of fruit, a lot of different ways. Although not for the health bit. It turns out I just like it that way.
It’s true that unadorned fresh fruit is not my idea of an after dinner treat. But, again when I think about it, almost all my favorite home desserts are adorned fruit — one way or another. It’s decked out fruit of one kind or another that gets passed around if I’m dining, as I often am, with loved ones and friends. Fruit that’s been just a little bit fussed with, its tie straightened and its hair brushed for company. No matter what my theory about what I think I like to eat, in the end, what I do proves that what I like to eat is fruit.
Like so: Pieces of dried fruit (mango, papaya, fig, apricot, persimmon) scattered on a plate with a few chocolate chips or jagged pieces of broken up dark chocolate. Slices of quince paste alternating with slices of full fat monterey jack cheese, to be eaten together in one luscious, squishy bite. Fresh raspberries nestled in cream, crystal brown sugar scattered on top. Strawberries dipped in sour cream and the same brown sugar. Baked apples.
My favorite, though, is baked pears. The way Martha Rose Shulman taught me how to make them, in her divine book Provençal Light, which is an example of a cookbook meant to help you eat less fat (my usually most hated form of cookbook) that turns out to help you cook simply and deliciously no matter how many calories you think you should consume. She says she learned this method from Christine Picasso. Another bit of art we have to thank a Picasso for, in my opinion, and, much as I admire Cubism in theory, I have to say that in the end this recipe has done more to improve my quality of life.
Of course, I’ve fiddled with it, and tamed it to where I don’t have to pay as much attention to it as perhaps Ms. Shulman or Ms. Picasso would like. But it’s to their credit entirely that no matter how lazy I get with it, it still always comes out right. And of course, it’s the ideal dessert for one of my favorite cooking methods: pile everything in one oven, in different dishes at different times, and have them all come out at the same time.
The other night, I was braising an oxtail just for myself alone, in a basin of red wine and herbs, and of course you know how long an oxtail takes to submit to your will — i.e. a really long time. I couldn’t bear to turn on the oven just for it alone; what a waste. So I grated some carrots, put them in some cream, and shoved them in after. Then a few potatoes to bake, on the theory that I could use them later for soup or whatever (I did, too, and the whatever was delicious).
I halved a couple of tomatoes, too, scattered some rosemary on them, and put them on the lowest shelf underneath everything else.
But there was still a little room in the oven.
Looking around the kitchen speculatively, my eye landed on my overflowing fruit bowl. It is autumn, after all, and autumn means Indigo Ray is desperately trying to find a home for all of her apples and all of her pears, all of which seem to ripen at approximately the same time. So I had a big haul, just sitting there, piled. The pears were almost ripe but not quite. And that, as a matter of fact, is the best kind of pear to use for Baked Pears.
Take as many pears as you like and will fit into whatever baking dish you choose. Wash them, and with a paring knife, cut a little circle out of each one’s bottom. As you do, fill the hole with a spoonful of honey, then quickly set the pear right side up in the baking dish. When they’re all nestled neatly, each one next to its neighbor, comfortable but not spread out, pour about an inch of water into the bottom of the dish. Scatter a few whole cloves about. You can sprinkle a bit of sugar on top, but I never bother. Put into an oven at whatever temperature you’ve got everything else going at, and bake for a really long time until the pears are wizened and crackly looking, and the water/honey mixture has thickened. This takes about 2 hours at 350°, or about an hour and a half at 400°. Or more or less, you know, as usual. Cook ’em till they look and smell done to you.
They’re great hot on their own or with a little cream poured over, or next to a scoop of ice cream. They’re great the next day for breakfast with some of the syrup spooned over them, and a little full fat yoghurt on the side. They’re a wonderful afterthought to the next night’s dinner. And you can just keep them in their baking dish, covered, in the frig, all week, and spoon them out, one by one, at will.
Well, if it’s THAT kind of fruit. Well then. I definitely eat that kind of fruit for dessert, and when I do, I know I’m home.