A few months ago we were looking for a dessert to accompany a somewhat rich meal we were making for a dinner party [see “Edible Gold”]. Scratch that. We didn’t want something that would just “accompany” this meal, we wanted something that would bring it to a close in style. Michelle had initially thought that she might whip up a pastry-based dessert, but the meal we were making was already quite complex (both in terms of procedure and in terms of flavors), so I suggested that we opt for something fruit-based and something simpler. That’s when we turned to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse: Fruit cookbook (one of our favorites), and found her Marsala-Baked Pears recipe. The recipe couldn’t be any more basic, but, like all the best recipes, the results far exceed the sum of its parts—in this case, exponentially so.
The key is to have good pears. The recipe calls for Bosc pears (Beurré Bosc), and I wouldn’t recommend any substitutions. Bosc pears have exactly the firmness necessary for this recipe, and their elongated forms (which are often “charmingly inclined,” as Waters points out) and distinctive tones are perfect for this dish. “A ripe Bosc has dense, tender flesh that is sweet, rich, and aromatic,” Waters writes. Those with light russeting will show that they are ripe by turning yellow, but those that are heavily russeted will not show a change in color, and therefore must be tested by “pressing gently on the neck area.” Boscs are firm-fleshed, so a ripe one “will give only slightly.” Like other pears, Boscs should be ripened at room temperature in a loosely closed paper bag. Pears that are particularly firm can take a week to ten days to ripen, so be sure to choose your fruit carefully.
Here's the recipe:
6 [or 7, as the case may be] medium Bosc pears
1 1/2 cups Marsala wine
1/2 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 425ºF.
Slice 1/8 inch off the bottom of each pear so it will sit flat. Arrange the pears in a ceramic baking dish just large enough to hold them snugly. Pour the Marsala over the pears and sprinkle with sugar. Bake the pears for about 1 hour, basting them every 15 minutes with their cooking juices. They are done when they can easily be pierced with a knife and look caramelized and golden. Serve the pears on individual dessert plates, drizzled with the juices from the baking dish and with a dollop of crème fraiche or mascarpone alongside.
Serves 6 [or 7, as the case may be]