I had my first pear when I was 17. I was in Munich, halfway through a back packing trip that was to last nearly a year. It was freezing. I had no coat. As I trudged through the streets to find a warm library or café I spied the biggest avocado I ever saw sitting in a produce shop window. The sign beneath it said “alligator pear”. Homesickness for Southern California washed over me and I walked into the store and tentatively asked how much it was. Turned out to be beyond my reach at the equivalent of $5. So I settled on a real pear. I was amazed. Such juiciness, such sweetness! I couldn’t remember ever eating a pear before.
What followed was one of the funniest conversations I ever had with my mom. I called from a timed phone booth to ask for money for a winter coat or, even better, a winter coat sent to me. While I had her on the line, I asked “Why haven’t we ever eaten pears?”. Her response after a lengthy pause, “I don’t like pears”. “Why? Have you eaten one? Do you like them?” I said to myself one day I would get her to like pears. Many decades later that day has come.
Welcome to the Pear Tarte Tatin. As with most of my first time pie/tart experiences failure seems to come more readily than success. Yet I forge onward. Tarte Tatin is one of my favorite desserts yet I’ve never really made a great one. The caramel has always been my problem. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to prepare the dessert for An American Farm Dinner, honoring the work of farmer Al Courchesne and Frog Hollow Farm. Farmer Al sent me a flat of Warren Pears for my experimenting pleasure. I decided to whip the Tarte Tatin into submission using the pears. Turns out it’s so easy I recently made two of them while cooking for a dinner party. Not before the party…during it.
I brought a piece home for Mom. Her reaction? “What a marvelous tart! What’s in it?. Yeah mom, it’s that exotic ingredient, the pear.
Evan’s Pear Tatin
Pie dough of your choice
7 ripe, yet still firm really good pears
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
Peel pears and cut them in half. Remove the fibrous string that goes from stem to blossom end along with the small core. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400º
Roll out the dough so you have a 10 inch circle. It should be a thicker than usual, about ¼” or a little more. The crust needs to be able to stand up to the juices of the pears, which will be considerable. Put the dough on a cookie sheet and let it sit in the refrigerator while you prepare the fruit and caramel.
Put the butter in a 9” pyrex pie pan. Heat it on a burner over low heat until the butter melts. Squeeze the lemon juice over the butter then evenly scatter the sugar over. Turn the heat up slowly until the butter and sugar starts bubbling. Don’t worry if you get some burning of the sugar. That’s a good thing.
Lay the pears cut side up in the pie pan so that they are right next to one another and the bottom of the dish is as covered with pear as possible. Allow the butter and sugar to bubble away over low to moderate heat. The pear juices will start to mix with the sugar and butter and you should start to see caramelization within 10-15 minutes. If the heat from your burner is uneven, occasionally rotate the pan. Regulate the heat and allow the butter-sugar-pear juice caramelize to a dark golden color. Don’t get scared. If you don’t let the sugar really darken your Tatin will be very pallid and unappealing.
The reason you are using a pyrex dish aside from the even heating is that you can look through the bottom of the pan to see how dark the sugar is. Be very careful. The best way is to ask someone else in your house to lift it so you can peer beneath. It’s perfect if the juices are deeply colored and there are a few dark spots at the centers of a couple of the pears. When the color is right, remove the pan from the burner and place on a heatproof surface. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and lift into place onto the pears. Tuck it in around the pears like you’re tucking them into bed. If there is additional dough fold it over to create a double thick edge. Don’t worry about how it looks. No one will see it after you flip the tart.
Put the tart in the oven and bake until the crust is golden brown and the juices are even darker. If your pears are very juicy, you might want to take the tart out of the oven after 10 minutes and carefully pour the excess juice off into a small saucepan. Put the tart back in to the oven to cook for another 5 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile let the juices in the saucepan reduce over a high flame until you have a lovely syrup to garnish the finished tart.
Remove the tart from the oven when the crust and caramel are a good color. Let it sit to settle for a few minutes. Place a serving plate over the crust-topped pan and flip it so that the pears are face up. Serve with unsweetened whipped cream and a drizzle of the reduced juices.
You can make the tart ahead. Keep it in the pan and just before serving pop it into a 375º oven to loosen the juices so that it’s easy to flip.