One night about 4 or 5 years ago, my friend Matt and I went to see a movie at the wonderful little independent movie theater in Dupont Circle just a few blocks from my then-apartment. I think the movie was Capote.
After the movie, we wandered out onto the sidewalk and spent a few minutes trying to figure out where to go to dinner, when, just over Matthew's shoulder, I spotted one of my journalism professors, a cranky veteran reporter with a slightly jaundiced pallor, standing intimately close to a much younger girl with long thick hair and Asian features.
This thrilled me the way that catching a professor living a real life outside of the classroom can thrill any student, and so we took off giggling and hiding and conjecturing having stumbled upon an illicit affair on that weekday evening. We passed the entrance to an Italian tratoria on Jefferson Place (a nobby little street I've always loved) that I'd been long-obsessed with because it was underground and had stone steps and a charmingly cliche Chianti bottle hanging above the doorway. And because Matt was usually game for a nice dinner on an average evening, we went in and were seated right away under a brick wall covered in photos of Giovanni, the owner, with random celebrities. (Of course, this was DC, so the celebrities were people like Sam Donaldson and the Ambassador of Kuwait and the ever-rapacious Helen Thomas.)
The dinner was good; I ordered costolleta alla milanese, which was the most expensive entree on the menu, and Matt some kind of pasta, which I recall him describing in a very Matt-like way as being "great but not memorable." But really, it was the dessert that somehow buried itself into my brain as one of the most perfect things I've ever tasted: a white wine poached pear served with vanilla ice cream and an ethereal coat of caramel sugar. I spent the next 15 or so minutes in absolute rapture as I ate and exclaimed and forced spoonfuls of my dessert at Matt who was (I'm absolutely sure) nursing some kind of coffee beverage.
The funny thing that I'm realizing as I write this, is the way that magnificent pear seems to have frozen all the details of that night in my brain. It was the first poached pear I'd ever eaten, which I suppose explains some of the fascination, but to be honest there was something magical in the blend of flavors that really captured my imagination, and which (I suspect) I've been trying to recreate with every single vanilla bean I've split and scraped ever since.
These pears...the ones I'm offering you today, I'm sorry to say, are not as perfect as the one I had that night. But they are wonderful and taste the way I suppose the word "gold" would taste if you were to lick it one quiet afternoon. It's the anise and the vanilla, which infuse the syrup, and (of course) the fat little pears which sit solidly on the plate, swollen and brimming with vanilla speckled nectar. And because when things are good I just like to keep on pushing, I served these with warm chocolate ganache and a spoon for drizzling.
Serve these on Thanksgiving as your dessert, along with kiwi sorbet and some kind of boozy cake. They're actually perfect for a crowd since they can be made ahead and can be served cold or at room temperature or even hot, if you prefer. And the leftovers can be sliced and heaped over a pile of pancakes or baked into a clafouti then served to the family member who still happen to be hanging around the morning after.
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Star Anise & Vanilla Bean Poached Pears
1 bottle white wine (I used a buttery Chardonnay)
1 cup apple cider or water
3/4 cup white granulated sugar
3 tablespoons honey
1 whole vanilla bean, split
6 star anise pods
6 firm pears (such as Bartlett or Bosc)
1. Peel the pears, leaving the stems in place. Core from the bottom. Use a paring knife to slice off a tiny bit of the bottom in order to create a flat base.
2. In a 4 or 5 quart saucepan or dutch oven, combine the wine, water, sugar, honey, vanilla, anise, and cloves. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to make sure all the sugar and honey is dissolved.
3. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and place the pears in the liquid. If the liquid doesn't rise high enough to cover them while upright, place on their sides, but rotate every 10 minutes so that they are poached evenly on all sides. Continue to cook for 25-30 minutes until the pears are tender but not mushy (use a thin knife gently inserted in the side of the smallest pear to test).
4. Remove the pairs to a large air-tight container and cover with the liquid. Let cool to room temperature, then cover and place in the refrigerator to chill (up to 24 hours).
5. The day you are ready to serve, remove the pears to a serving dish and pour the liquid back in a saucepan. Reduce the syrup over medium-high heat for 15-20 minutes until slightly thick. Let cool to room temperature before pouring over the pears. Serve alone, with whipped cream, or with a drizzle of chocolate ganache.