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Ripe with anticipation

Times Staff Writer

PERFECTLY ripe, the pear is a paradox: verging on crisp, yet soft as velvet. With every juicy bite, its delicate flavor invites comparisons to nectar and flowers and meadows, but there’s no need really. Just as its voluptuous silhouette sets the standard in the lexicon of shapes, the pear tastes inimitably of itself.

Still, it requires a little patience. With the pear, there is a time for everything. A time for picking, when the fruit is mature yet hard. A time for ripening, when sweetness unfurls from its core, transforming the flesh all the way to the skin. And a time for eating, when those who have patiently watched and waited are at last rewarded. When that moment arrives, you must seize it -- gently. This is when you hold the pear in your hand, its bulbous blossom end a comforting weight in your palm and its narrow head securely snug between thumb and finger, and lightly squeeze by the stem. It will yield just so, and you’ll know. It is ready. Waste not a moment -- the beautiful paradox lasts only so long.

Eaten out of hand, it is perfection. Placed in the hand of a cook, it is inspiration. Sweetness begets sweetness.

Here in Southern California, our leaves might not turn the rusty reds and fiery yellows and brilliant greens and mossy browns of a picture-book fall, but our pears most certainly do. And perhaps that is why we prize them even more. They’re our harbinger of the season.

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Pear frangipane turnovers

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, plus about 45 minutes chilling time

Serves: Makes 8 turnovers

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Note: From Mary Ellen Rae of The Times Test Kitchen. Frozen butter puff pastry sheets can be purchased at Surfas Restaurant Supply and Gourmet Foods in Culver City and at Nicole’s Gourmet Foods in South Pasadena.

2 sheets frozen butter puff

pastry

1/2 cup blanched almonds,

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lightly toasted, cooled

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter

1/4 cup sugar

2 eggs, divided

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3 tablespoons Poire

William (pear brandy)

1/8 teaspoon almond extract,

or more to taste

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3 tablespoons flour

2 ripe Bartlett pears

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon heavy cream

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2 teaspoons crystal sugar

1. Defrost the puff pastry according to the package directions.

2. Place the almonds in a food processor. Process until finely ground.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in 1 egg and the brandy, almond extract and ground almonds. Beat in the flour.

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4. Scrape this frangipane mixture into a bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes or up to several days.

5. Peel the pears and cut in half lengthwise. Remove the core and stem. Cut the pears into one-fourth-inch lengthwise slices. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and cover with plastic wrap to prevent browning.

6. Roll out 1 sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured work surface into an 11-inch square about one-eighth-inch thick. With a very sharp knife, trim off 1 inch around the edges. Cut straight down; if you drag the knife, the layers will compress and will not puff as high. Cut the square into 4 equal squares, turn the pastry over and set aside. Roll out the second sheet and follow the same procedure. Save the pastry scraps for another use.

7. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Make an egg wash by beating the remaining egg and the cream together.

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8. Picturing a square folded on the diagonal into two triangles, spread 1 1/2 tablespoons frangipane onto half of the pastry, leaving a half-inch border. Place 4 to 6 slices of pear on top, rounded side facing the corner. Cut the fruit to fit if necessary.

9. Carefully brush the egg wash on the pastry border so it does not drip over the edge. Fold over to form a triangle. Gently press down the sides to seal. Place the turnover on the parchment paper and repeat to form 7 more turnovers. Reserve the remaining egg wash.

10. Refrigerate until the pastry feels cold and firm, about 15 to 20 minutes. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

11. Brush each turnover with egg wash, making sure not to let it drizzle over the edges. (Egg wash on the edges will inhibit the dough from rising.) Sprinkle each with crystal sugar.

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12. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake until puffed and golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Pastries are best eaten the day they are baked.

Each turnover: 259 calories; 5 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 16 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 70 mg. cholesterol; 47 mg. sodium.

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Pear and cardamom upside-down cake

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Total time: 1 hour

Serves: 8

Note: From Mary Ellen Rae of The Times Test Kitchen. Buy green

cardamom pods, remove and grind the seeds for the freshest

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cardamom flavor.

1 1/2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

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1/2 teaspoon freshly ground

cardamom (from about 6 to 8 pods)

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, room temperature, divided

3/4 cup packed golden brown sugar

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2 firm, ripe Anjou pears

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup milk, room temperature

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-by-1 1/2 -inch round cake pan.

2. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together. Stir in the cardamom and set aside.

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3. Melt one-fourth cup butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sugar has melted and combined with the butter. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, spreading it to reach the sides.

4. Peel the pears, cut in half and remove the core and stem. Cut each half crosswise into one-fourth-inch-thick slices. Arrange the pear slices in a slightly overlapping circle around the cake pan, starting at the outer rim. Finish with several slices in the center. Sprinkle the pears with the lemon juice. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

5. Beat the remaining one-half cup butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until soft and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl when needed. Alternately add the flour mixture and the milk, beating after each addition just until combined.

6. Gently spoon the cake batter on top of the pears, smoothing out to the edge of the pan and making sure the cake batter fills in around the pears.

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7. Bake until the top is a deep golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Place the cake on a rack to cool for 5 minutes in the pan.

8. Run a small spatula or knife around the edge of the pan and invert onto a cake plate, leaving the pan on the cake for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Each serving: 447 calories; 5 grams protein; 66 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 100 mg. cholesterol; 230 mg. sodium.

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Poached pears with red wine caramel sauce

Total time: 1 hour

Serves: 4

Note: From Mary Ellen Rae of The Times Test Kitchen. Use a fruity Merlot to poach the pears.

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Pears

4 cups red wine

1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise, seeds scraped

2 (3-inch) strips lemon peel, pith removed

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3/4 cup sugar

4 firm, ripe Bosc pears with stems

1. Combine the wine, vanilla bean and seeds, lemon peel and sugar in a saucepan large enough to hold 4 pears. Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce the heat to simmer.

2. Peel the pears, leaving the stem intact. Use a melon baller or a half-teaspoon measuring spoon to remove the core at the bottom of the pear.

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3. Place the pears in the simmering wine and cook, turning frequently to immerse the pears in the wine on all the sides. Poach until a small knife can easily pierce the pears, about 8 to 15 minutes, depending on size and ripeness.

4. Remove the pears using a slotted spoon and place them in a large glass bowl. Pour half the poaching liquid over the pears. Set aside the remaining poaching liquid in the pan to make the caramel sauce. (The pears can be made up to a day ahead and refrigerated.)

Caramel sauce and assembly

Reserved poaching liquid

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1 1/3 cups sugar

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1. Remove the lemon strips and vanilla bean from the reserved poaching liquid. Return the pan to the stove and cook the remaining liquid over medium heat until it reduces to half a cup, about 15 minutes.

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2. Place the sugar and water in a medium heavy saucepan. Turn the heat to high and melt the sugar without stirring. When the mixture starts to boil, reduce the heat to medium and cook without stirring until the sugar turns a deep amber color, 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Remove from heat and carefully add the reduced poaching liquid (pour it down the side of the pan). The mixture will bubble up and bits of sugar may harden.

4. Return the pan to the stove over medium heat. Stir in the cream. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and cool slightly. (Makes about 1 cup caramel sauce. The sauce can be made a day ahead. It will thicken as it cools; before serving, microwave for 10 to 15 seconds.)

5. Spoon a few tablespoons of caramel sauce onto each of 4 dessert plates. Place a pear on top of each plate. Drizzle the remaining sauce on top of pears near the stem and serve.

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Each serving: 527 calories; 1 gram protein; 130 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 3 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 10 mg. cholesterol; 16 mg. sodium.


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