Pears for dessert, baked or poached

A port wine-poached pear makes an elegant dinner party finale.
A port wine-poached pear makes an elegant dinner party finale. St. Louis Post-Dispatch

In cooking, pears are like tinsel on the Christmas tree. They don’t really stand out by themselves, in most cases – they are the added something extra that brings the whole dish together and makes it seem more special.

Sweet and succulent, pears are generally not going to be part of a main course. They’re not an entree kind of fruit. But they bring an irresistible flavor and compelling texture to many desserts and breakfasts.

The most elegant way to prepare pears has to be to poach them in port for a dessert that will not be soon forgotten.

I’m not kidding about that. Six years ago I had a pear that had been poached in port, and I still think about it today.

Prepared like this, the pear is great on its own. But if you want to add a scoop of vanilla ice cream – purely for the sake of contrast, you understand – no one will complain.

Because the port-poached pear was so attractive, I decided to make another good-looking dessert, pear upside-down cake.

But if you want to try making a baked dessert with pears, but find an entire cake too daunting, you can try a cobbler.

With a cobbler, the baked part is only on top. And the top part of a drop-biscuit pear and dried cherry cobbler is so foolproof that even a first-time baker is assured of a successful result.

The other secret to this recipe is its use of dried cherries. Dried cherries are like raisins, only a hundred times better because they’re cherries. They create tiny little explosions of flavor in your mouth. But even so, they do not overpower the relatively subtle taste of the pears. The two flavors complement; they do not compete.

Port wine-poached pears

Serves 4

Adapted from “The New York Times International Cook Book,” by Craig Claiborne

1 cup port wine

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Three 2-inch strips orange peel

One 2-inch strip lemon peel

1 stick cinnamon

1 whole clove

4 firm, ripe Bosc pears

Ice cream for serving, optional

Combine wine, sugar, orange peels, lemon peel, cinnamon, clove and 2 cups water in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat and set aside.

Cut 1/4 inch from pear bottoms to make a flat surface. Peel pears and nestle them in the bottom of pan containing wine mixture. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, covered, until a knife slides into pears with ease, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from heat; let cool in pan. The pears will continue to take on color as they cool in the liquid.

To serve, transfer pears, cut-side down, to 4 plates and drizzle some of the sauce from the pan over pears. Serve with ice cream if desired.

Per serving: 240 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 1 g protein; 52 g carbohydrate; 39 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 6 mg sodium; 22 mg calcium.

Pear upside-down cake

Serves 6 to 8

Adapted from Bon Appetit.

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature, divided, plus more

3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons coarse yellow cornmeal or polenta

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

2 medium pears (about 1 pound)

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs, separated

1/2 cup whole milk

Whipped cream or caramel gelato, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter cake pan; line bottom with a parchment-paper round.

Whisk flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. Set aside. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a small pan over medium-low heat and stir in brown sugar until well combined. Pour into prepared cake pan and spread to coat the bottom.

Peel, halve and core the pears. Cut lengthwise into 1/8-inch slices, and arrange over the caramel in a circular patter, overlapping as needed.

Mix granulated sugar, remaining 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter and vanilla in a large bowl. Beat on medium speed with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add yolks one at a time, beating to blend between additions and occasionally scraping down the side of the bowl with a spatula. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with milk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.

Using clean, dry beaters (or a whisk), beat egg whites on low speed in a medium bowl until frothy. Increase the speed to medium and continue to beat until whites form soft peaks. Fold about 1/4 of the whites into cake batter. Add in remaining whites, gently folding just to blend. Pour batter over pears in pan; smooth the top.

Bake cake, rotating halfway through, until top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few small, moist crumbs attached, about 55 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool in pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Run a thin knife around the inside of the pan to release cake. Note: This can be done up to 1 day ahead at this point. Store airtight at room temperature.

Invert cake onto a plate; remove parchment paper. Serve warm or at room temperature, with whipped cream or caramel gelato, if desired.

Per serving (based on 8): 419 calories; 19 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 94 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 59 g carbohydrate; 44 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 197 mg sodium; 72 mg calcium.

Drop-biscuit pear and dried cherry cobbler

Serves 8

Recipe from Bon Appetit

6 medium Bosc pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup dried tart cherries

2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 1/8 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

Pinch of ground cloves

2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss pears, cherries, brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of the flour, lemon juice, cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon of the salt and cloves in a large bowl. Transfer to a 13-by-9-inch baking dish.

Whisk remaining 2 cups flour, baking powder, the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and 3/4 cup of the granulated sugar in a medium bowl. Rub in butter with your fingers until a coarse meal forms. Gradually mix in 1/3 cup hot water until a soft, wet dough forms (a few lumps are OK). Drop clumps of dough over filling; sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake until filling is bubbling and top is golden brown and cooked through, 40 to 45 minutes. Allow to cool. Serve with ice cream.

Per serving: 571 calories; 18 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 46 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 100 g carbohydrate; 63 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 284 mg sodium; 198 mg calcium.