Fasten your seatbelts. We’re on the home straight, everyone.
I hope you’re all nicely prepared for this weekend, and you have everything planned and prepped.
I find it’s the only way I can properly enjoy myself, knowing I’ve left nothing to chance.
And, kitchen-wise, it’s a great feeling to have everything plotted out – you should see my wonderfully pernickety day-planner for the next couple of weeks! – so even a casual pop-in can be catered for with swan-like grace.
This is the time of year when having a lovely big pork pie handy is essential, to be served with some summer pickles or chutneys.
A joint of ham, too, be it a classic British roasted affair or a vogueish leg of Jamón Iberico, always finds itself nibbled at over the feast days.
There should be enough mince pies to sink the QE2, a firm, fruity Christmas Cake (to be enjoyed, as tradition dictates, with a wedge of good strong cheese in front of ‘Where Eagles Dare’) and bottles of Bailey’s, cream sherry and strong Christmas ales available.
Just add a few cheese footballs and some minty chocolates, and you’ll be fine.
It’s also important to have your puddings ready to go (it’s easy to forget the end of a meal, but it’s what your guests remember most, often times), and this week’s recipe is a nice simple one that can be made up a day or so in advance; one of those that can be pushed into a hot oven and largely forgotten about.
A conversation on Twitter way back at the start of the year had popped the idea of a poached pear dish into my mind.
Someone, I forget who, had mentioned ‘polishing’ pears, and I had to admit I’d hitherto never heard of this technique.
The gentle rubbing of a peeled pear with a coarse teatowel ‘sands off’ the edges and produces a smooth, rounded pear, which is why the ones in fancy restaurants and in photos look so smooth and elegant.
Well, I was eager to try, and so concocted this dish around this new-found technique.
A poached pear is a classic, usually cooked in syrup or sweet red or white wine, but I decided to poach mine in a spiced-up perry, the pear version of cider. (Pub quizzers may note that 70’s grandma’s favourite tipple, Babycham, was actually sparkling perry).
It’s quite easy to find these days, and is a lovely, tart drink, with that unmistakeable fragrant note that only pears give.
To accompany our pears, a lovely hazelnut crisp, the recipe for which I unashamedly pinched off top chef Simon Rogan.
It’s a beautifully-textured, sweet crunchy biscuit which you’ll find hard to resist.
You could serve clotted cream, or vanilla ice-cream with this dish, but I liked the idea of the absolute purity of cold whipped cream as a textural addition.
The poaching liquor is reduced to a syrup to serve as a drizzling sauce, and the dish is done; a wonderfully seasonal pudding, full of warming spices and deep flavours that can be put together in a trice.
And, as this is the last article before the big day, allow me to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.
For the pears:
6 dessert pears (Rocha or Williams)
1 litre sparkling perry
1 stick cinnamon
6 allspice berries
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 vanilla pod, split
125g unrefined golden caster sugar
The juice of 1 lemon
For the crumble:
240g caster sugar
140g chopped hazelnuts
100g toasted oats
240g white bread
160g icing sugar
80g butter, melted
2 free-range eggs, beaten
For the cream:
The seeds of 1 vanilla pod
A little mint, for garnish
First, make the hazelnut crisp; Set the oven to 140ºC and set out a sheet of baking parchment on a wide surface. In a pan over medium heat, dissolve the glucose and caster sugar in 150ml water and heat the syrup until it reaches 160ºC.
Mix in the chopped hazelnuts and pour quickly onto the baking parchment. Place another sheet of baking parchment on top and use a rolling pin to roll out the mix as thinly as possible.
Leave this to set for about an hour, or until it has fully hardened. When completely hard, chop it finely by hand or by pulsing in a food processor.
Finely dice the bread and bake in the preheated oven for about 10 minutes or until golden brown and fragrant.
Turn the oven up to 160ºC / Gas 3. In a bowl, sift together the cornflour and icing sugar, then add the chopped hazelnut mixture and the toasted bread. Stir in the melted butter and egg. Spread the mixture thinly onto baking trays lined with parchment paper and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until golden and crisp.
When cool enough to handle, break it into rough shards and store in an airtight container until required. Now for the pears. Heat the oven to 180°C / Gas 4.
Peel each pear, leaving the stalk, and carefully scoop out the pips using a small spoon or melon baller. Then, with a coarse teatowel, rub along the peeling lines to leave a smooth, perfect pear.
Pour the perry into an ovenproof dish suitable for poaching all the pears together, and add the sugar and the aromatics.
Pop in the pears, cover and bake for 40-50 minutes, turning occasionally, until the fruit is cooked, and a knife will pass easily though each pear. Remove from the liquid and drain, before refrigerating.
Reduce the cooking liquid down to a thick, nut-brown syrup and strain into a suitable container.
To serve, whip the cream with the vanilla seeds until light and pillowy, then chill until required. To serve, place a pear on each plate. Arrange some hazelnut crisp around, and spoon on a big dollop of cream.
Finish the dish with a drizzle of perry syrup and a little fresh mint.