Last Friday was my fifth wedding anniversary, a fact my husband and I both forgot until the morning of. We’re in a place in our lives in which we’re constantly looking forward—what’s next, what’s next—so we often forget to slow down and appreciate things we’ve done. The traditional gift for five years of marriage is wood. Champagne—one aged in old oak barrels—seemed fitting. Great. Anniversary celebration handled. Check!
But then I got to thinking about how I promised myself that, after we got married, I’d make more pie. Phil loves pie and I love the idea of pie, but in five years, I think I’ve made exactly four pies; three of them were recipes I was developing for work.
Because I’ve decided to focus on baking this month, I flipped through one of the new books I recently received: Samantha Seneviratne’s gorgeous The New Sugar and Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking. A paragraph in the introduction resonated with me:
“Homemade desserts have a big job: they carry messages to important people. We bake them with the people we love. We share them with the people we love. We eat them with the people we love. But these days, we are told over and over again that one of the principal ingredients of dessert is deadly.”
I think this has become my problem with baking: If you offer someone a kale chip or something “healthy,” it feels overly virtuous, maybe even judgmental. A homemade cookie, however, seems nuturing, even if, as she writes, “Some doctors claim that sugar should be grouped with cigarettes and alcohol as a harmful, addictive substance.”
Sam’s solution is to keep desserts as a celebratory, indulgent part of life and to make them more memorable with the generous and intriguing use of spice. Sounds good to me!
Toward the back of the book, I spotted the Pear Tarte Tatin with Anise Seed Caramel. Tarte tatin is kind of like an upside down cake in pie form. Best of all, the tarte is made in a skillet, which somehow feels less stressful to this reluctant baker because I’m not really baking when I’m using a frying pan, right? It was a perfect non-pie pie to celebrate.
Following the recipe was a cinch: Sam writes clearly with lots of great coaching along the way. For example, when you’re first making the caramel, she writes, “Don’t worry if the caramel separates. Once you add the pears, it will smooth out again.” Phew!
I will admit that—through no fault of the recipe—I chickened out when finishing up the caramel. She says to wait until the caramel turns a deep amber, and I pulled it when it was closer to the color of honey, or somewhere between light and medium amber, if you want to be technical. I learned a lesson: Don’t be afraid to take the caramel to the brink, especially when sweet pears are involved!
The resulting tart was delicious, but that little bit of complex caramelly bitterness would have made it even better. No matter: With Champagne, it was perfect. (Because everything with Champagne is, isn’t it?)
- 1½ cups (6¾ ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface and for rolling.
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 3 to 5 tablespoons of ice water
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
- ⅓ cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon anise seed
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 4 medium-ripe Bosc pears (about 7 ounces each), peeled, cored, and cut into sixths
- To Finish
- Creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream, for serving
- To prepare the dough, whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut the butter in with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal with a few pea-size pieces. Add 3 tablespoons ice water and stir with a fork until a shaggy dough forms. Add 1 to 2 more tablespoons water if necessary, but stop before the dough gets too wet. It should just hold together when you squeeze it in your hand. Gather the dough into a rough ball in the bowl with your hands. Set the dough on a piece of plastic wrap, wrap it up, and flatten it into a 6-inch disk. Refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours or up to 2 days. Alternatively, freeze the dough, well wrapped, for up to 1 month.
- Preheat the oven to 400°.
- On a lightly floured surface, with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out to a 10-inch circle. [EBDB note: I like to do this between sheets of parchment paper.] Set the pastry on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and chill until the pears are ready.
- To prepare the pears, melt the butter in a 10-inch ovenproof skillet. Sprinkle sugar evenly over the melted butter and cook over medium until the mixture begins to turn amber, swirling the pan occasionally, about 2 minutes. (Don't worry if the mixture separates. Once you add the pears, it will smooth out again). Remove from the heat, sprinkle the anise seeds and salt evenly over the caramel, and carefully top with the pears. Return to the heat and cook until the caramel turns a deep amber, occasionally stirring and flipping the pears gently with a heat proof rubber spatula, 10 to 12 minutes. The mixture should be simmering but not too vigorously, or the caramel may break. Adjust the heat as necessary. Take care not to smash the pears.
- Remove the skillet from the heat. If you like, you can use a fork and the spatula to carefully rearrange the pears into a pretty patter. I think it looks just as lovely when the pears are haphazardly strewn about. Top with the round of pastry, tucking the edges in with the spatula. Using a paring knife, cut 4 small slits in the pastry. Bake until the top is golden brown and the caramel is bubbling, 24 to 28 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 5 minutes. (Be sure to wrap the skillet handle with a towel for safety.)
- Run a knife around the edge to loosen any pears that might be stuck. Top the skillet with an overturned plate that is at lest 1 inch larger than the skillet. Quickly flip the skillet so that the tart is right-side-up on the plate. Rearrange any pears that have fallen out of place and scrape any caramel from the skillet onto the tart.
- Serve warm topped with a dollop of creme fraice or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Store leftovers well wrapped in the fridge for up to 2 days.