Pears poached in wine make for a light and elegant end to a special meal, and here, star anise makes them even more so. You can make the pears ahead of time, and then finish the caramel sauce just before serving.
- 8 firm Bartlett or Anjou pears, peeled
- 1 (750-milliliter) bottle sweet white wine
- ¼ cup honey
- 3 star anise pods
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 vanilla bean pod, cut in half and seeds scraped and reserved (see Kitchen Tip)
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- Peel the pears, keeping the stem on, and cut a ⅛-inch slice off the bottom of each so that they can stand upright in the pan.
- Combine the wine, honey, star anise, cinnamon stick and vanilla bean pod and seeds in a large nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cut a piece of parchment paper in a circle to fit roughly on top of the pan without hanging over the side (see Kitchen Tip).
- Place each pear into the simmering liquid, cut side down. and standing straight up. Place the prepared parchment paper directly on top of them.
- Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 to 25 minutes, or until you can insert the tip of a sharp knife into the thickest part of the pear and feel only a little resistance. The cooking time will depend on the size and ripeness of the pears; if the pears are very firm, it might take longer.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. When the pears are ready, with a kitchen spider or ladle, gently transfer them—without squishing them—to the baking sheet. (Keep in mind that they should not be mushy when you transfer them, as they will continue to cook off the heat once you return them to the the poaching liquid.)
- Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a container big enough to hold all the pears in an upright position. Transfer the pears to the container, cover, and refrigerate until completely chilled. (If the pears seem on the edge of being too soft, let the liquid cool before placing the pears into it.)
- When you are ready to serve, transfer the pears to a platter and set aside. Pour the liquid and the sugar into a medium-sized saucepan, set over medium-low heat, and stir gently for 25 to 30 minutes, until it has reduced to about one-third of its original volume and reaches 225°to 230°F on a candy thermometer.
- Place a pear on each of 8 dessert plates. Pour the caramel sauce over them and serve.
- If you prefer, you can also use 1¼ teaspoons vanilla bean paste.
- Covering a pot with a piece of parchment paper prevents the cooking liquid from evaporating. The key is to get the paper to fit right onto the surface of the whatever is being cooked. The easiest way to do this is to prepare the paper in advance: place the pot on a piece of parchment paper, then trace around the bottom with a pencil and cut out the shape. Another way (which is how the professionals do it) is to fold a piece of parchment into quarters. Then with the parchment still folded, hold the center point over the center of the pot and cut the outer edge of the paper to fit, using the edge of the pot as your guide. Make a curved cut, and when you unfold the paper, you should have a scalloped circle that fits onto the surface of whatever you are cooking.
- You don’t want pears that are either unripe and very firm or fully ripe and very soft or mushy. On test day, our pears were a little past their prime, but still worked fine.