I love autumn. Not the weather getting colder, days getting shorter part. I’m not so enthused about that. I need my sunshine. But while everyone else is raking up leaves and cursing about the mess they make, I think they lend a real beauty to our urban landscape. Plus it’s fun going for a run and crunching them underfoot. Yes, I’m rather immature in that way. And yes, I really do that.
I love autumn because of the fabulous seasonal foods that appear. Like pears. Nuts. I LOVE pears and nuts. On their own, they’re wonderful. Together, they are divine. Thrown together in a tart with a light flaky crust, the walnuts and almonds whipped into a light frangipane, and the pears gently poached in a vanilla and cassia bark syrup? There are no words. Do I detect a little drool? Totally understandable.
This is the dessert that I make every year for Mother’s Day, but who needs an excuse? It’s a great dessert for autumn, full stop. Try to find the most perfect pears you can. I was lucky enough to get some beautiful unblemished Williams pears at our local organic grocer. They were just ripening and perfect for poaching. I usually make this tart with almonds only, but I substituted half the almonds with walnuts this time for something different. The walnuts give the frangipane a more rustic texture and the flavour is *insert random superlatives here*.
You can prepare the pastry and the poached pears the day before to save time. I line the tart tin, cover it, and place it in the freezer to chill overnight. I poach the pears the day before and store, covered in their syrup, in the refrigerator. Leftover poaching syrup is great kept for use in other desserts or to mix a little through yoghurt or pour over ice cream.
The pears make a wonderful dessert or breakfast on their own, served with a dollop of yoghurt and some of the reserved syrup.
Capturing this lovely tart “on film” for posterity has been a bit of a challenge … *damn you, clouds!* … but I think you can still see its autumnal comfort food appeal.
Mother’s Day or not, this is a lovely dessert for autumn. Enjoy. Crunch some leaves underfoot. Bask in the colours and flavours of the season.
Serves 6 – 8 people (1 x 23cm tart)
175 grams plain flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
50 grams castor sugar
125 grams unsalted butter, chilled
1 egg yolk
750 millilitres water
100 grams sugar
1 vanilla bean or 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla bean paste
1 stick cassia bark or 1/2 teaspoon ground cassia bark
3 large pears
75 grams unsalted butter
100 grams sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla bean extract (optional)
65 grams walnuts
65 grams almonds or almond meal
2 tablespoons plain flour
30 millilitres Poire William, pear schnapps, or reserved syrup from poaching the pears
For the pasta frolla
Prepare the pasta frolla as per the recipe in Torta di Ricotta Siciliana.
Line a 23 cm tart tin with the pastry. Cover the pastry well with cling film or foil and set aside to chill in the freezer for at least half an hour or overnight.
For the poached pears
Place the water and sugar into a saucepan that is large enough to poach three pears. Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds into the pan. Add the stick of cassia bark. Alternatively, add the vanilla bean paste and ground cassia bark to the pan. Place over a low heat to dissolve the sugar while you prepare the pears.
Add the juice of the lemon to a bowl of cold water. Peel and slice the pears in half lengthways. Leave the stem on one half if you like. Remove the core and seeds with a teaspoon, melon-baller or small paring knife. Take care to do this as neatly as possible. Place the pear halves straight into the acidulated water as soon as possible to prevent them browning.
Once the pears are ready, raise the heat on the syrup until the syrup comes to the boil. Add the pears and lower the heat so that the syrup is gently simmering. Poach the pears for around 15 – 20 minutes. This will depend on how ripe the pears were to begin with and how juicy they were. Check them after about 15 minutes. They are ready when a skewer pierces them easily.
When cooked, carefully remove the pear halves with a slotted spoon to a dish. I like to use a rectangular dish or at least one where I can place the pears in a single layer. Raise the heat on the syrup and reduce it down until you have about 1/2 cup of syrup. Remove the cassia bark stick, if using. Pour the syrup evenly over the pears. Cool the pears, cover, and refrigerate until ready to bake the tart. I usually poach them the day before and leave them overnight. Note the lovely colour of the syrup and all those gorgeous vanilla seeds
For the frangipane
Place the butter and sugar into the bowl of a mixer and beat until light and creamy and the sugar has dissolved. Add the egg, and vanilla bean paste and beat until light.
Place the walnuts and almonds (if using whole) in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely ground. You want the consistency of almond meal. Add the ground nut meal, flour and brandy or syrup to the mixer bowl and beat slowly until combined.
Putting it all together
Preheat oven to 190°C. Line the pastry case with silicon baking paper and fill with baking weights (or rice/beans). Bake blind for about 20 minutes. Carefully remove the paper and weights and bake a further 5 minutes until light golden. Remove from the oven on to a wire rack and cool slightly before filling.
Fill the pastry case with the frangipane and smooth the top. Carefully remove the pear halves from the syrup and drain on absorbent paper. With a sharp knife, cut slices into each pear half to form a fan shape. To do this, don’t cut all the way through. Start from just below the stem end so that the stem end remains intact to hold the pear together. Carefully lift each half on to the top of the tart, slightly fanning out each half. There is enough space to fit six halves easily. Brush each pear half with some of the reserved syrup. This will help keep them moist during baking as well as add a little extra glaze and flavour. Here’s what it looks like when it’s assembled for the final baking:
Reduce the oven temperature to 180°C and bake the tart for about 50 – 60 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven and set on to a wire rack to cool before serving. Before serving, lightly brush the pear halves with a little more reserved syrup. This gives them a lovely sheen. This is optional but worth doing. Serve the tart slightly warm, or at room temperature, plain or with a dollop of cream or scoop of ice cream.