This is it! The home stretch! The last pear recipe this fall, before I succumb to the pumpkin fever that’s sweeping the nation and paint my face orange in a woefully misguided attempt at fitting in! Are you ready to rumble?
Previously in my not-at-all official pear series, I shared recipes for Pear Cupcakes with Honey Buttercream and a Pear Pistachio Tart. This dessert might appear the be the fanciest of them all (or maybe it doesn’t—what do I know?) but I think it’s actually the easiest one to make. Cascades of dripping caramel sauce and artfully scattered nuts always give the illusion of hoity-toity. Do not be fooled.
It’s sort of a coincidence that this dish—caramel panna cotta with vanilla poached pears—resembles the love child of two other desserts I posted recently: Salted Caramel Milk and Crème Fraîche Panna Cotta. I actually made it first—almost a month ago, back when I was contenting with that huge box of fresh pears threatening to take over my kitchen—and after it was such a lip-smacking success, I couldn’t get panna cotta off my brain so I revisited it a few weeks later. I promise to take a little panna cotta hiatus after this so you don’t get sick of it. (Unless…pumpkin panna cotta…dare I? No. I shan’t. I musn’t!)
Anyhow, this dessert is the perfect way to end a fall dinner party. The vanilla-flecked poached pears are soft, lightly floral, and fruity, and they pair perfectly with the deep, rich flavor of the caramel panna cotta. Finish it off with a drizzle of caramel sauce and a few toasted hazelnuts, and you have yourself a plate of autumn perfection!
Caramel Panna Cotta with Poached Pears
yield: 6 servings
For Poached Pears:
1 vanilla bean
3 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
3 large firm but ripe pears, peeled
For Caramel Panna Cotta:
1 tbsp unflavored powdered gelatin
3 tbsp cold water
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp lemon juice
1/2 cup caramel sauce, to decorate (optional)
1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts, to decorate (optional)
To Make Poached Pears:
Use a sharp paring knife to cut a slit in the vanilla bean lengthwise, and spread the bean open. Scrape out the seeds. Combine the vanilla seeds, scraped vanilla bean pod, water, and sugar in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the sugar dissolves.
Add the pears to the water. Cut a piece of parchment paper into a round circle to fit the top of the pan, and press the paper down on the pears. (This helps prevent them from discoloring when the tops are exposed to air.) Partially cover the pan with a lid, and simmer the pears over medium-low heat until they are soft, for about 20 minutes. Turn them occasionally so they poach evenly on all sides.
Once the pears are tender, remove the pan from the heat. Carefully transfer them to a bowl and pour the poaching liquid on top of them. Let them cool to room temperature before proceeding. They can be refrigerated to speed up the cooling process. The pears can be made in advance and kept, well covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week.
To prepare them, cut the pears in half lengthwise, and use a paring knife to remove the stem and seeds from the middle. Slice the pears lengthwise in 1/2-inch strips, stopping about an inch from the top so that the top stem holds the pear together.
To Make Caramel Panna Cotta:
Whisk together the gelatin and the water in a small bowl. Set it aside to let the gelatin absorb the water, for about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, warm the cream and salt together in a small saucepan until it just starts to simmer, then remove it from the heat. Put a medium pan on the burner to preheat.
Rub together the sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl, until the sugar is fragrant and clumps together. Put the sugar in the hot pan, and begin stirring immediately. Because the pan was preheated, the sugar will start to melt almost immediately, and will quickly go from liquid to caramelized. Cook the sugar, stirring constantly, until it is liquid, smells like cooking sugar, and is a rich medium amber color. Cooking the sugar is a balancing act—if it’s undercooked, your panna cotta will not have a strong caramel flavor, but if it’s cooked too long, it will scorch. This is why it’s important to watch it carefully and stir constantly.
Once the sugar is ready, add the warm heavy cream and whisk well. The sugar might seize, but continue to heat and whisk until the sugar melts and you have a smooth liquid. Microwave the bowl of gelatin for 15 seconds, until it is liquefied. Whisk the gelatin into the caramel cream, then whisk until everything is smooth.
Lightly wet the inside of six 1/2-cup serving bowls. Pour the panna cotta into the bowls, and refrigerate them until chilled and set, at least 3 hours. (Panna cottas can be made several days in advance and kept in the refrigerator. If making in advance, cover the bowls loosely with cling wrap.) To serve, gently run a knife around the outer edge of the panna cotta, and carefully pull it away from the sides with your fingertips. Invert the panna cotta onto a serving plate. Serve with poached pears on the side, a drizzle of caramel sauce, and a pinch of toasted hazelnuts.
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