Today is the first day of autumn, a season that is celebrated for the bounties of late summer and of the harvest. And for many the season is best represented by baking. Bread, pies, and tarts have become synonymous with the season of change. Baking with fall fruit such as apples, pears, plums, and quinces are a perfect way to celebrate. For me the fruit that best represents fall is the pear. Even though most pear varieties are picked unripe during the summer, the fruit can last in cold storage all throughout autumn and winter. If picked ripe, the pear is mushy, but when allowed to ripen on the counter or in a paper bag, a pear can be the most flavorful fruit. Some criticize it for its grainy texture, but I appreciate it for that uniqueness. The perfume of a ripening pear is like no other fruit. With pears in mind, I decided to put together one of my favorite tarts.
A French confection with the utmost elegance, this pear and almond cream tart is great for entertaining this season. Pears and almonds are a true match for one another. Their flavors and textures work harmoniously in this recipe. The almond cream base is traditionally called a frangipane and can be used as a base in a variety of desserts, but its most common companion is the pear. The frangipane uses blanched almonds, which can be found readily in supermarkets. But whole almonds can easily be blanched in boiling water so that their thin brown skins slip off easily. The crust on the other hand uses almond meal to add extra nuttiness and texture. Made from whole ground almonds that include their skins, almond meal or flour can be found in specialty markets or can be made right in the food processor.
This recipe may look complicated, but it basically involves three main rather simple sections. The tart dough is easily made a day in advance. It's quick to put together and once baked is very rewarding in its crispiness and color. The poached pears can also be made in advance, even days before. Just let the pears cool in the poaching liquid and refrigerate until ready to use. And don't discard the poaching liquid. Use it for poaching other fruits and make a compote or apple sauce. A shopping tip: When buying pears, look for ones that are firm and free of blemishes. For this recipes, the pears do not need to be ripe, but instead should be firm to hold up to cooking. For eating, check ripeness by pressing the stem end of the fruit.
Pear and Almond Cream Tart
for the crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup almond meal
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk
3 to 5 tablespoons ice water
for the poached pears:
3 firm Bosc or Bartlett pears
1 lemon, juiced
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
6 cardamom pods
6 whole cloves
3/4 cup sugar
for the almond cream:
1-1/3 cup blanched almonds
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into small pieces
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
To make the dough, combine flours, almond meal, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Mix together with a whisk to aerate. Add butter and work with a pastry blender until mixture resembles course meal.
In a small bowl, beat together egg yolk and 3 tablespoons ice water. Drizzle liquid mixture into dry ingredients. Mix until dough comes together. If too dry, 1 to 2 tablespoons ice water can be added.
Form the dough into a flat disc and wrap in plastic. Chill for at least 1 hour before rolling.
To make the poached pears, peel, core, and slice pears in half. Toss in lemon juice. Combine wine, water, and spices. Bring mixture to a boil. Add pears and lower heat. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until pears are knife tender. Remove pears to a plate and let cool. Thinly slice each pear half crosswise.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out tart dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Carefully lay dough into a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Press dough into the sides. Remove excess dough with a knife. Fill any holes or gaps with excess dough. Chill shell for 15 minutes.
To make the almond cream, combine almonds, flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Process until very fine. Add butter, egg, and extracts. Process until a smooth paste forms.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Spread the almond cream in the tart shell. Chill for 15 minutes.
Using a spatula lift each sliced pear half and place on the almond cream with the stem end facing center. Fan the slices toward the center.
Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until the almond cream has puffed and is golden brown. Yield: 8 to 10 slices.