As far back as the 15th century, English cooks discovered that wine-poaching hard pears made them tender and tasty. One abbey had cooks “pare wardens (hard cooking pears), clean, seethe them in red wine till they be tender, then take them up and put them in a pot; put thereto wine of Crete or Vernage (Verona) … powder of sugar and powder of ginger and let them boil awhile and then serve forth.”
Paired with delicate vanilla panna cotta puddings, and a syrup made by cooking down the spiced wine poaching liquid, poached pears make a delicious dessert. I love to make them for festive dinners, because you prepare the fruit, syrup, and panna cottas ahead of time. Assembly at service is simply drizzling the syrup over the panna cottas and adding a pretty slice (or slices) of the pear on top. You’ll make the panna cottas in individual ramekins with some of the sliced pear. I like to serve a few of the beautiful whole poached pears on their own plate.
FOR THE WINE-POACHED PEARS
• 8 very firm small Bosc pears
• 1 bottle cabernet wine
• 1/2 cup water
• 1 1/4 cups sugar
• Zest from one fresh lemon
• Juice from . fresh lemon
• 2 cinnamon sticks, broken up
• 1 Tbsp ginger nibs or powdered ginger
• 2 star anise pods
FOR THE PANNA COTTA
• 8, 7-to-8-ounce clear glass ramekins
• 2 cups whole milk
• 2 Tbsp gelatin granules
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 2 cups whipping cream
• 2 tsp vanilla paste OR vanilla extract
• 1/4tsp salt
In an enameled stock pot over medium-low heat, add burgundy wine, water, sugar, lemon juice, zest, and spices. Simmer while you pare the pears. Carefully peel one of the pears, leaving the stem intact. Slice a thin piece of pear off at the bottom, allowing the pear to stand upright without wobbling for pretty presentation later. Set peeled pear in the poaching liquid. Continue until all pears have been added to the pot. Cover pot. Simmer gently for 40 minutes. Carefully remove pears from pot and set into a large storage container. Pour the poaching liquids through a strainer (to remove zest and whole spice pieces) over the pears; cover the container and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.
MAKE PANNA COTTA
Add whole milk to a saucepan. Sprinkle gelatin granules over the milk. Allow to bloom for 5 minutes. Place pan on stove top over medium-low heat. Whisk milk until gelatin has dissolved for a scant 2 minutes. Quickly whisk in sugar and continue to heat until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat. Whisk in cream and vanilla paste. Divide liquid evenly between the 8 ramekins, pouring carefully so as not to slosh onto the sides of the glass. Cover each ramekin with plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator overnight.
MAKE SPICED WINE SYRUP
Pour 3 cups of the poaching liquid into a pot over medium high heat. Bring to a slow boil. Simmer until the liquid has reduced to syrup consistency.
Spoon wine syrup over the top of each panna cotta to cover the surface. Slice through the circumference of several of the poached pears to make perfect rounds as shown in photo. Place one round on top of each syrup-topped panna cotta. Serve remaining pears sliced or whole at table, or reserve for future use. Note: If you like, you can add a spoonful of assorted diced fall fruits—apple and cape gooseberries are nice—to the top of each dessert.