The “imperfect pearl”: Winter pear flan

tartApart from food, one of my great loves is art so I ask you to stay with me for a momentary digression. The Baroque dawned in Europe in the very final years of the sixteenth century and hung about for approximately 200 years. Baroque was a response to the cool classicism and intellectualism of the Late Renaissance and Mannerist arts.  Rubens and Caravaggio are two Baroque artists you quite possibly know. In researching this post, I came across Baroque perfectly described as “movement imported into mass”. If you’ve never studied art you might find this a silly and meaningless thing to say so you may want to have a look at Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Theresa which pretty much says it all, really, and says it far more eloquently than I ever could.

Baroque was originally (an often still is) used as a pejorative term to describe something that is overly flamboyant, excessive or highly ornamented.  I have had a culinary Baroque – anyone with enough time on their hands and a love of cooking probably has. It reached it’s peak around 10 years ago before being replaced with the Abstract Expressionism of parenthood. It entailed the construction of overly complex or otherwise excessive dishes: consommes nail-bitingly clarified with egg-whites, fiendishly complex curries, peking duck, vitello tonnato etc. Entire weekends would pass in the ongoing consumption of incredible food and assorted social lubricants. Laughter and hangovers were both abundant. On one memorable occassion we accidentally invited a couple of vegetarians to a kangaroo and beef themed Sunday lunch. At a friend’s dinner party the 14th and final course was a huge slab of Jindi Triple Brie which caused (and I kid you not)  30% of the substantial party present to, shall we say “retire” from the event. Now might be a good time to look at another work of Baroque art, Caravaggio’s David and Goliath.

This Winter Pear Flan is the sweet flowering of my personal baroque. It is an original recipe and I am, to be honest, very proud of it. I’m not going to lie and tell you how easy it is to make. It has a lot of components and each one has it’s own complexities and difficulties. You have to really pay attention. You have to get a lot of dishes dirty. And you will get very, very sticky. But I’m telling you, the combination of cloves and creme patissiere, the pears heady with bay and star anise and lightly glossy with a touch of honey,  the super short pastry crust – well, I’ll leave it your imagination. This is a dish to be used unwisely. Baroque, incidentally, means “a rough or imperfect pearl”. A perfect description of this dish.

Winter pear flan

For the pears:

  • 6 pears, peeled and halved length ways. Choose pears that are only just under-ripe
  • 4 cups of water
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 3 cups caster sugar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 6 cardamon pods
  • 2 star anise
  • 10 whole cloves
  • 6 peppercorns
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Piece of orange peel
  • 1-2 tbsps LIGHTLY flavoured honey (omit this step if you only have a heavily flavoured honey available)

Bring all the ingredients apart from the pears and honey gently to a boil, stirring often so that the sugar doesn’t stick. Add pears to the syrup and keep the liquid to a gentle simmer. Poach until the pears are just soft. Gently remove the pears and boil the remaining syrup for around 20 mins to reduce it. Add the honey (don’t be tempted to use too much), remove from heat and stir until dissolved. Return pears to the syrup and set aside. Now it’s time to move on to the pastry.

For the pastry (do NOT use pre-prepared shortcrust for this, it would be a crime against the flan)

  • 180g of unsalted butter
  • 240 g of plain flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons of water

Take the butter from the fridge half an hour before starting. Sieve your flours and salt straight onto a lightly floured surface. Cut the butter into little pieces and rub into the flour to partly combine it. Make a well in the centre and add the water. Quickly work the mixture with pastry scrapers (I don’t have these so I use a cake server and a metal egg flip – classy!) and work into a rough heap of buttery lumps of dough. Stephanie Alexander says to be mindful of cement mixing techniques, if this helps. Then, very quickly use the palm of your hand to smear the pastry away from you across the workbench. It will combine lightly and be very fragile and dry. This is what you want. Gather it together, dust in flour, wrap in gladwrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour. The secret of shortcrust is to work it as little as possible and keep it cold so that the butter doesn’t over-combine with the flour. It will help to chill your bench down with ice packs beforehand if your workspace is too hot. Then move on to the creme patissiere.

For the Creme Patissiere

  • 2 cups of milk
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 50g cornflour
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, spilt
  • 1/2 cup of thickened cream
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves

Place the vanilla bean in the milk and bring it just up to boiling point before removing it from the heat. Whisk the yolks, egg, cornflour and sugar together until thick. Slowly pour the milk on and stir. Transfer the mixture to a clean pan, bringing slowly to the boil and stirring until thick. Beat vigorously for one minute until smooth and then pass through a sieve. Discard the vanilla bean. Press glad wrap down onto the surface until ready to use. Before use stir through the thickened cream.

And finally…

Heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and and line a flan tin with pastry. Place in the freezer for 20 minute and then cover the pastry in foil or baking paper weighed down with dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes, remove the paper and beans and bake for another 5 minutes until lightly golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool. When cooled spread with pastry cream and sprinkle with ground cloves. Remove the pears from the syrup and arrange in circles on the flan, decorate with the bay leaves, anise and some freshly zested orange. Chill before serving. Aaaaaahhhh. I’m exhausted……

 

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3 Responses to The “imperfect pearl”: Winter pear flan

  1. This is a fantastic and truly memorable dessert. I cannot recommend it enough.

  2. Pingback: Apocalypse now: Rabbit and juniper pie | Libby Cooks