Editor's note: Living in the Colorado high country is pure joy. Baking in it isn't. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips to make baking in the mountains successful.
Cool weather, shorter days, and snow on high peaks ... time for dinners in front of the fire and desserts that leave us feeling snug and satisfied. This pear-cranberry crisp fits that description to a tee. Sweetened pears and dried cranberries are baked under a walnut streusel, and served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream ... simple, wholesome and delicious.
There are lots of recipes for pear crisps, so why do I like this particular one? First, it provides a solution to the under-ripe (a euphemism for rock-hard) pears we often encounter in our grocery stores. By cutting them into small cubes and bathing them in a simmering mixture of sugar and butter before they're baked, their chances of softening to the texture we want is greatly increased.
Second, the bath ingredients do more than help to tenderize the fruit; they also enhance its taste. Pears have a flavor that can get lost when baked; the rum, vanilla and orange peel that are included in the sugar-butter mixture do a lot to enhance it. Yes, it remains subtle, but, thanks to these additions, it's very pleasing.
Third, the streusel is a perfect complement to the baked fruit. The topping makes a crunchy contrast to the filling and the nutmeg provides another element of flavor that works well with the pears and cranberries.
(Adjusted for altitude. Make in four 4-inch diameter ramekins with 2-inch sides or an 8-by-8-inch glass baking pan.)
1⁄2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3⁄4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
3⁄4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1⁄4 cup sugar, preferably Baker's superfine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons dark rum, brandy, or orange juice
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
3⁄4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
3⁄4 cup dried cranberries
31⁄2 cups Bosc pears, cut into 3⁄4-inch cubes
Vanilla ice cream
Up to a day ahead, prepare the streusel: Place the flour, sugar, nutmeg and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk until well combined. Cut the room-temperature butter into at least 12 pieces, add them to the bowl, and rub/toss with your fingertips until moist clumps are formed. Stir/toss in the chopped walnuts until they are evenly distributed. If making ahead, cover and refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees with a rack in the center position. Generously butter the ramekins or baking dish. Make the filling: In a large skillet or saucepan, place the sugar, butter, dark rum (or brandy or orange juice), orange peel, vanilla extract, and salt. Heat at a medium setting, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves (the mixture should feel smooth when rubbed between your fingers ... no grains of sugar evident) and comes to a boil. Reduce the heat, add the dried cranberries and cubed pears, toss gently until all are thoroughly coated with the sugar mixture, and simmer, while continuing to stir, until the pears begin to soften slightly and the cranberries absorb some of the liquid. If your pears are soft to start with, add only the cranberries to the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and, if you didn't include them earlier, add the cubes of pear to the mixture and stir/toss to coat them with it. Let the mixture cool slightly.
Divide the pear-cranberry mixture evenly between the ramekins or spoon it into the baking pan and spread and level it. Sprinkle the streusel over the top. If using ramekins, place them on a rimmed baking sheet for ease in handling. Bake until the streusel is golden and the pears are soft. (Test by inserting a small knife through the streusel, stabbing a pear cube, and gently pulling it out. Take a bite and see if it's done to your liking). The amount of time this takes varies greatly, depending on the ripeness of your pears and the size of your pan. I've had ramekins take anywhere from 30 to 48 minutes and a large pan take over an hour to complete baking. If the streusel is nicely browned before the pears are done, tent a sheet of aluminum foil over the pan top(s).
Remove the crisp(s) from the oven, let cool slightly, and serve warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. You can make them several hours ahead, cool completely, and re-heat in a 325 degree oven until warm to the touch. Store leftovers in the refrigerator, covered.
This recipe was inspired by one in Bon Appetit.
Vera Dawson, a chef instructor with CMC's Culinary Institute, lives in Summit County, where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at email@example.com.