There’s a famous French tart called Tarte Bourdaloue aux Poires, created by a renowned patissier, Paul Coquelin, around the turn of the last century. It’s a luscious concoction of almond pastry cream and poached pears, and a perfect autumn baking project, if you have 2 1/2 hours to spend in the kitchen.
One of the first comments I got last night, when I served this to a congenial group of neighbors, was “how long did this take you to make?” And indeed, this tart is fussy, although not finicky, lengthy in its preparation, and makes a lot of dirty dishes. You’ll never get away with saying “oh, it’s just a little thing I tossed together,” because it’s obviously a labor of love. But if people you love deserve the best of peardom, by all means allez-y, get some pears and get going. Don’t plan to be able to do anything else during the time you’re making this, although you will have half an hour to attack the heap of dishes while the tart’s baking.
Down the road from us is the most beautiful pear tree I’ve ever seen, its rosy, golden pendants just inviting theft. Ergo the sign, which we obeyed, after just admiring the fruit of someone else’s labors. Instead we had to content ourselves with some nice organic store-bought pears. I used Bartlett pears, although I think Bosc are more traditional. I also added a star of anise and a stick of cinnamon, also non-traditional, but which I think lend a subtle, haunting flavor to pears. And by the way, if you find the name too much of a tongue-twister, you can just call it French Pear Tart.
Tarte Bourdaloue au Poires*
For the pastry:
1 2/3 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
10 T chilled butter, cut in pieces
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 T ice water
For the pears:
4 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 stick of cinnamon
1 star anise
4 ripe but firm pears
For the almond cream:
2 1/3 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup blanched, slivered almonds
1/3 cup powdered sugar
2 T butter
1/2 cup crushed amaretti (optional)
Begin with the crust. In a food processor, combine the flour and salt and add the cut up butter. Whiz until the butter is well integrated, as you would for a pie crust. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and whiz to combine. Add the ice water and whiz just until the dough begins to come together. Dump out the dough, press it into a flattened oval, and put in the fridge to chill a bit.
While the dough is chilling, poach the pears. Peel them, cut them in half, leaving the stem and core intact to help keep the pears’ shape. Place them in a large pan with the water, sugar, cinnamon stick, and star anise, bring to a near-boil, then simmer them for about 15 minutes, turning them over once, until the fruit is just tender. Don’t over cook them here or you’ll have trouble with them later. When the pears are tender remove the pan from the heat and allow the fruit to cool in the syrup.
While the pears are poaching, preheat the oven to 400°. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a lightly floured board to fit into an 11 or 12″ tart pan. Prick the dough all over with a fork, then gently fit a sheet of foil into the pan and fill it with beans or rice, or pie weights if you have them. Bake the dough for 20 minutes, then remove it from the oven, carefully remove the weighted foil, and allow the tart shell to cool. You can leave the oven on here, or heat it up again a little later.
While the tart shell is baking, begin making the almond cream. Place the milk in a large measuring cup, scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the milk, and toss in the rest of the vanilla bean. Zap the milk in the microwave until it is near boiling, about 3-4 minutes.
While the milk is heating, whisk the eggs and sugar together in a sauce pan, then whisk in the flour. Slowly whisk in the hot milk (after removing the split vanilla beans), being careful to whisk out any lumps. Cook this mixture over medium heat until very thick, whisking constantly, about 8-10 minutes. Pour this custard into a mixing bowl and whisk in the butter until it melts. Grind the slivered almonds in the food processor with the powdered sugar until you have a very fine powder. Whisk this almond powder into the custard and set it aside to cool. Whisking it frequently will help it cool faster.
While the custard is cooling, remove the pears from the syrup and place them on a cutting board. With a small, sharp knife, delicately remove the stems and cores, doing your best to keep the pear intact. Turn the pear halves over and slice them thinly, but leave the pointed end intact, only slice them up to about 1/4 inch from the top. This is easier to do than to describe, just take your time here, because the beauty of the tart depends on this step.
Once the custard has cooled to room temperature place it gently in the tart shell and smooth the surface. Using a small offset spatula, carefully scoop up the pear halves and nestle them into the custard. Bake the tart at 400° for 30 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven, and if you’re using the amaretti (which give a nice little crunch and additional hit of almond flavor), tun the oven to broil. Decoratively scatter the cookie crumbs over the custard (I chose not to sprinkle them on the fruit itself, because I wanted to show it off), dust the pears lightly with powdered sugar, and place the tart under the broiler for a minute or two while the crumbs brown.
Arguably I let my crumbs brown a little too much, as it happened really fast, but I have to say that no one complained, and I think that the tart would be lovely sans crumbs too. Now sit back and wait for the applause. I guarantee that you won’t have to wait long.
* adapted from this version of the recipe.