Pear desserts

It’s the season for winter pears.  Our harvests of Conference and Comice pears have been chilling in ours and a friend’s refrigerator since early October. Now we’re bringing them out a few at a time to ripen to their full pear sweetness.  

We eat these winter pears fresh mixed with yogurt and granola for breakfast, with a sandwich for lunch, and tossed with radicchio and chicory or spicy mustard and arugula leaves for a dinner salad.  And for dessert?  Two new pear recipes caught my eye recently, and I’ve been making each, for us and for friends.  Either Conference or Comice pears work beautifully with these recipes.

Caramel Pear Crisp by New York Times Cooking author Samantha Seneviratne is more complicated than the usual fruit and topping crisp because of the caramel layer, but the result is worth the extra step.  While a whole recipe serves a crowd generously, I’ve halved this recipe for four people with plenty to go around. 

Caramel Pear Crisp

The caramel in this comforting seasonal dessert is made with butter and sugar and is a bit easier to make than a water and sugar caramel. That said, it is important to use ripe fruit that will let off juice so that the caramel isn’t too stiff. The cream cheese adds body and tang, and highlights the delicate flavor of the pears, but in a pinch, you could swap the cream cheese for ¼ cup of heavy cream. Either way, a drizzle of cold heavy cream for serving would offset the sweetness nicely.  


Yield: 8 servings

For the Caramel

  • 4tablespoons/58 grams unsalted butter
  • ¾cups/175 grams granulated sugar
  • 4ounces cream cheese, cut into pieces
  • 1teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)

For the Fruit

  • 2½ to 2¾pounds ripe pears (such as Bartlett or D’Anjou), each cored and cut into eighths
  • 2tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger (1 ounce), optional
  • 1tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)

For the Topping

  • 1¼cups/100 grams old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1cup/136 grams all-purpose flour
  • 1cup/95 grams sliced almonds
  • ¾cup/165 grams packed dark brown sugar 

I use half as much sugar because our pears are very sweet

  • ½teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
  • 8tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  1. Step 1

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

I complete steps 4 and 5 before making the caramel so that all three parts are ready to combine as soon as the caramel is done. 

  1. Step 2

Prepare the caramel: Add 2 tablespoons water and the butter to a 12-inch oven-safe skillet with high sides. Sprinkle the sugar in an even layer over the bottom of the pan (try to avoid getting any sugar on the sides of the pan). Heat the skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the sugar without stirring until bubbles start to appear. At this point you can swirl the pan carefully to help the sugar brown evenly. Once the caramel is deep amber, 6 to 8 minutes, remove the skillet from the heat.I start stirring the caramel once it starts to bubble to ensure that it doesn’t burn.  

  1. Step 3

Let the mixture cool for 1 minute and then stir in the cream cheese until fully combined (the mixture will bubble rapidly). Stir in the vanilla and the salt.

  1. Step 4

Prepare the fruit: In a large bowl, toss together the pears, ginger, lemon juice, cornstarch, cinnamon and salt. While the ginger and cinnamon are good, I substituted a half teaspoon of ground cardamon in later batches of this crisp and prefer that flavor.

  1. Step 5

Make the topping: In a medium bowl, combine the oats, flour, almonds, brown sugar and salt. Add the butter and toss together until all the dry ingredients are evenly moistened.

  1. Step 6

Add the pears to the caramel in the skillet and toss to combine. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the top. Rather than baking the crisp in the skillet, I’ve sometimes put the caramel-pear mixture in a baking dish before adding the topping for a prettier presentation.  The only problem with this variation is that some of the caramel may stick to the skillet.  Rewarming the stuck caramel in the skillet makes it easy to remove and add to the rest of the caramel-pear mixture.

  1. Step 7

Bake until the caramel is bubbling in the center, the fruit is tender and the topping is browned, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.

I love Marion Burros’ plum torte and make it often during fresh plum season.  When I saw recently in New York Times Cooking that Melissa Clark had riffed on this torte with pears, I couldn’t wait to try it. Simmering the pears in red wine, butter and sugar takes a bit longer than slicing and pitting plums, but the wine-flavored, caramelized pears are delicious and melt into the cake batter as wonderfully as plums do.  

Red Wine-Pear Cardamom Cake

This fragrant, fruity cake is a riff on Marian Burros’s original plum torte, one of The New York Times’ most popular recipes. But instead of plums, this buttery, moist cake (here, spiked with a little cardamom and citrus zest) is topped with pears that have been sautéed in red wine and butter. Like the original, it’s good served both plain, or with whipped cream or sour cream on the side.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

For the Red Wine Pears

  • 1¼cups/296 milliliters dry red wine
  • 2 to 3 pears, not too ripe (1 pound), peeled, cored, and sliced ½-inch thick (2 cups sliced pears)
  • 2tablespoons/28 grams unsalted butter
  • 1 to 2tablespoons/12 to 25 grams granulated sugar

For the Cake

  • ½cup/113 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
  • ¾cup/150 grams granulated sugar
  • 2large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1teaspoon baking powder
  • 1teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest
  • ¼teaspoon fine sea or table salt
  • 1cup/125 grams all-purpose flour
  • Confectioners’ sugar, for serving (optional)
  1. Step 1

Prepare the pears: Pour the wine into a large skillet and place it over medium-high heat. Let simmer until it reduces by half, 5 to 8 minutes.

  1. Step 2

Add the pears, butter and sugar (use less sugar if your pears are very sweet). Let simmer until the pears absorb the wine and caramelize, 7 to 10 minutes. All the liquid should be gone. Spoon pears into a bowl and let cool while you prepare the cake batter.

  1. Step 3

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the cake: Butter an 8- or 9-inch springform pan. Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle, or a bowl and wooden spoon, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 2 to 6 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add the baking powder, cardamom, citrus zest and salt, and beat until smooth. Beat in flour until well combined.

  1. Step 4

Scrape batter into the pan and smooth the top. Lay the pear slices on top of the cake. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour (the 9-inch pan bakes faster than the 8-inch). The top should be light golden, and the crumb should spring back when lightly pressed with a finger.

  1. Step 5

Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with a little confectioners’ sugar, if you like. Cake will keep in the refrigerator for 24 hours; bring to room temperature before serving.

Neither of these pear desserts is a pie, but either would be a great addition to the traditional Thanksgiving lineup of apple, pecan, and pumpkin pies.  And as some would argue, there can never be too many desserts on Thanksgiving.

Pear Pairings

Pear tree ConferenceI’ve been working my way through this year’s crop of Conference pears, a pretty and productive English heirloom pear that Scott harvested from his kitchen garden orchard in early October and stored in a friend’s walk-in cooler for a month.  We retrieved them in early November and have been ripening several dozen at time. Conference pears are especially good for chutney because their firm flesh holds up to long cooking, but we’ve also been enjoying their creamy texture and honey-like sweetness with yogurt and in salads and desserts.  In all these preparations, I’m reminded that the sweetness of pears is a perfect match for spicy, sharp and pungent flavors.  A pear by itself is delicious, but paired with contrasting flavors it’s even better.

Pear closeup Conference

Chutney is the most dramatic melding of pear sweetness with strongly contrasting flavors.  The recipe I’ve made for the past few years calls for pears, vinegar, onion, garlic, yellow raisins, mustard seed, cinnamon, cloves and lots of candied ginger. As these ingredients cook down together, sweet and sharp, pungent and spicy fragrances fill the kitchen, reminding me of all the meals I’ll serve with this rich pear condiment, everything from cheddar cheese sandwiches and baked potatoes to savory tarts, curries and roasted meats.Pear chutney tray

Plain yogurt with its pleasantly acidic flavor is another perfect foil for pears.  Yogurt, fruit and granola have been our standard breakfast for years, fruit varying with the seasons.  The pear months are especially tasty times because fresh pears along with dried pears in the granola make a double pear experience, lots of sweet to match the tang of yogurt.

Pears, yogurt, granola

Fall and winter salads are a classic canvas for sweet pears and contrasting flavors.  The other night, inspired by a recipe for “Red Mustard Salad with Asian Pears and Pecans” in Alice Waters’ newest cookbook The Art of Simple Food II, I added sliced Conference pears and chopped toasted hazelnuts to a bowl of Scarlet Frills mustard, Giant Red mustard and arugula and tossed this beautiful blend of colors, textures and flavors with a dressing of white wine vinegar, diced shallot, grated fresh ginger, olive oil salt and pepper.  Spicy greens, hot ginger, pungent shallot and sharp vinegar met sweet pears in a salad combination I’ll definitely make again.  But before I do I’ll make a different salad that combines pears with Gorgonzola or another pungent blue cheese.  Arugula or mache would be good greens here and sherry vinaigrette.  Next, instead of cheese, I might combine just pears and greens and let mustard vinaigrette provide the contrasting sharpness.  There are so many variations on sweet pear salads. I’ll run out of pears before I run out of salad combinations.

Pear mustard salad with dressing

Finally, there are pear desserts that bring ginger and other spices into the mix. A few years ago our friend Peggy introduced us to Upside down Pear Ginger Bread Cake, a perfect dessert for fall and winter. Wedges of pear soften in sugar and butter beneath the baking gingerbread batter, and the finished cake, pear side up, offers mouthfuls of sweet caramelized pear and spicy, dark molasses cake.  And if there’s no time for baking, a perfectly ripe pear makes a lovely dessert too, maybe with a bit of candied ginger on the side.

Pear Gingerbread

Conference pears fill the gap between our September-harvest Orcas pears and the even later Comice pears.  Luckily I have a couple of boxes of Comice pears still in my friend’s fridge, ready to ripen when the Conference are gone. Comice is a classic dessert pear served all on its own but I know I’ll be slipping them into salads and breakfast yogurt too.

Pears comice