#10 : Pear Pie with Crème Fraîche Caramel
Updated: Feb 21
("Would you like me to bring a pie?")
Have you heard the saying about the ripeness of avocados?
This always makes me laugh, though it's often true, and it also reflects the way I feel about pears. They are delicious by themselves or in a pie, but getting them when they are exactly ripe can be tricky. Bosc pears give you more of a hint than do Bartlett pears that they are "almost there," so I usually go with the reliable Bosc, and I decided to try them in a new pie recipe from a recent library cookbook, Sweeter Off the Vine. We were invited to lunch with our dear friend Michelle and this time, instead of the usual "Is there anything we can bring?" I asked, "How about if I bring a pie?" and Michelle graciously accepted.
Breaking my own rule!
Jeff and I have an ironclad rule that we never subject friends or family to a recipe before trying it at home (on just ourselves) first. I must have been feeling extra confident because I decided to make this pie and take it to lunch without trying it out first. "How bad could it be?" I thought. Even the pie crust was slightly different from my usual dough, with the recipe calling for a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in with the vodka/water when creating the dough. According to the recipe, the vinegar helps tenderize the dough by preventing gluten formation.
I'd made the dough the night before to allow it some beauty rest in the fridge, and it looked fine. As I rolled it out, I tried to keep it in a round shape as I was going to make the dreaded lattice-top crust. Luckily I had my assistant on hand to help me out.
Yes, my faithful Freddy was underfoot and occasionally on my foot right below where the pie operation was taking place. (The heater is right there and he loves to sprawl in front of it, soaking up the warmth, and it's even better when Daddy is nearby.) I hoped to get Jake to assist as well, but he let me know that unless cat treats were involved, he wasn't interested.
Preparation of the pears is the time-consuming part of this pie. One trick is to have a bowl with some lemon juice ready before the pears have been peeled, cored, and sliced. The lemon helps prevent the pears from browning before you're done. (This is also true for apples, peaches, and nectarines.)
I've learned the hard way that a very thin fibrous core runs all the way up the pear from the center. It's a bit of a pain to remove, but it's not very pleasant to get a crunchy bite of it in a slice of pie.
Inserting a sharp knife at a 45 degree angle along both sides of that core makes it easy to remove and discard. After that, scooping out the seeds is a cinch. We have a melon baller that I keep around for just that purpose.
Once the core is fully removed it's easy to invert each pear half, flat side down, and cut into thin slices. By this point you can determine the ripeness of each pear. Most of my pears seemed perfectly ripe with just one giving a little under-ripe resistance. I went ahead and used this pear anyway as I thought a little firmness might help prevent the pear filling from turning to mush - this can sometimes be a problem when the pears are too ripe. I tossed the pears with the lemon juice, some sugar - not too much as they are already sweet - and some instant tapioca ground in a spice grinder. We use an old coffee grinder for grinding spices. Make sure you didn't just use the grinder for coriander or cumin, as those are not flavors you want in your pie! If you did have spices in there, grind up a couple of tablespoons of rice in the grinder first - the rice helps get rid of any spice residue.
Because pears have plenty of pectin I didn't need to add grated apple to help thicken the filling. I tossed the pears, sugar and lemon juice with cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. I always grate fresh nutmeg rather than buying it already ground - the pre-ground nutmeg you'll find at the store has already lost most of its flavor. If you have any Poire William (pear brandy) a splash of that would be delicious here. Sadly, we were out - I'll have to add that to my shopping list. (I go through a lot of vodka, brandy and kirsch in my baking and add those frequently to my shopping list. I remind Jeff that the booze is a necessary grocery item in this case.) Use a slotted spoon to scoop the fruit mixture into the bottom crust. Leave most of the fruit juice (if there is any) behind to prevent the filling from becoming soupy.
Finally time to make the lattice top crust, rolling out the dough as usual. A fluted pie cutter works really well here, giving you ridged edges. Once those are cut out, you can layer them, starting with three strips across the pie. Then it's "easy" to make a lattice shape, folding back every other strip, weaving as you go. The following photos demonstrate my technique. It's not as hard as it looks; just take your time and calmly intertwine the strips of dough. Keeping this dough chilled until you need it helps keep the dough strips more sturdy.
To get the woven look, fold back the center strip so that the horizontal strip will be under the center vertical strip and over the other two vertical strips, and continue folding and weaving in this manner. It becomes easy with a little practice, and despite what you may think, the dough strips are flexible enough to stretch a little without breaking.
This is not something that should be done in a rush! Slowly and calmly (if at all possible...the calm part is tricky for me.)
The strips of dough can be as wide or as thin as you want, and can be woven together as tightly or loosely as you like - there's no wrong way to do it. Once you have the top crust in a shape you're satisfied with, carefully trim the loose ends off with a knife (or the pastry cutter) and gently but firmly press the top strips to the bottom crust so that they won't separate during baking.
The trimmed ends can be gathered together and rolled out into a mini tart that we usually call the "cook's treat." I had some leftover extra dough and added the trimmed ends, pressing that in my mini tart mold with some sour cherries left over from the Valentine's Day tart. (Jeff, on proofreading this, said, "Hey! I don't remember seeing that mini tart!" Me: "Um...it was gone before you got home from playing at church." Oops!)
My assistant remained calmed through the lattice shaping....
Before baking I gently brushed the top crust and the edges of the bottom with an "egg wash." I usually use one egg yolk and a tiny splash of milk and brush the crust all over to give it a golden brown color as it bakes.
If you have a pizza stone, having that under the baking sheet (which is covered with foil in case of drips from fruit bubbling over) helps the bottom crust crisp while baking. I noticed that I put the pie in the oven forgetting to add a little turbinado sugar to the top crust! Luckily I caught that just in time.
While the pie was baking, I decided to cook a fly in my soup. No, not really - that scary looking thing is a vanilla bean in the caramel sauce.
If you've never made caramel - yes, the first time is scary...but, like a lattice top crust, it gets easier with practice. Some tips: Gently swirl (rather than stirring) the sugar/water mixture as it cooks. Give the caramel your full attention as it goes from a perfect amber to a burnt mess in a few seconds. Avoid splashes as the caramel is extremely hot and will burn you. If you add anything such as the crème fraîche that I mixed in, do this off the heat (note I have the pan in the sink) as the caramel will bubble and sizzle. Gently whisk the caramel, remove the vanilla bean, and let it cool to room temperature. Serve the pie with or without the sauce. (Oh, who am I kidding? With!)
The Verdict: Star Baker or Leaving the Tent?
The lunch was delightful and we even got a French lesson! (Michelle is from France and taught us a French drinking song about drinking five or six "bouteilles de vin" which sounds about right to me.) Great company, delectable food, and the pie was gobbled up. It was just right - not too sweet, crispy crunchy crust, and the crème fraîche caramel sauce - Mon Dieu! C'est extraordinaire!
(Quite a while back I bought a cake/pie carrier. At the time Jeff thought it was a waste of money since we'd never be bringing a pie anywhere. Little did he know.)
The pie was a huge success and Jeff pronounced it Delicious! - the best pie yet. The pressure is on now to top this one.
And if you're brave enough to make this, a recipe is here. The recipe says the caramel sauce is so good it would even make shoe leather taste good. I'm not sure about that, but it is stupendous. I may need to make some vanilla ice cream and use the sauce as topping. (Hmmm...sixty-one flavors of ice cream next year?)