A New Way with Carrots
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
When I pulled an actual bunch of carrots from our garden last week, it was cause for a (minor) celebration. After years of trying and failing with Scarlet Nantes, I’d found a new variety perfectly suited for our plot. To celebrate, then, I wanted something special. Thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi, I found it.
What’s particularly impressive about this dish, and Ottolenghi in general, is how he uses spices and small quantities of exotic ingredients to create vibrant, unique vegetable dishes. Many other chefs would resort to slabs of bacon - not that there is anything wrong with bacon. Here, however, Ottolenghi creates a curried flavor that relies on olive oil and yogurt for its fat content. It certainly showcases the carrots, but it is also worlds away from the roasted carrot salad I normally make in summer. I made only a few minor changes: omitting the preserved lemon and cilantro (not by choice, only by circumstance); altering the cut and, therefore, cooking time of the carrots; omitting green chiles; and substituting chives for green onions and adding them to the yogurt. Ottolenghi suggests this as a side to a fried fish, but it was perfectly satisfying as a part of a light summer lunch along with an omelette and a green bean salad.
So, should you find yourself in possession of a fresh bunch of carrots, think twice before adding bacon.
P.S. Unlike Smitten Kitchen, I do not ever doubt Yotam Ottolenghi’s sanity.
Sunday, April 06, 2014
When I first started eating seasonally and locally, I thought that the short, dark days of winter would be the hardest to abide. I quickly learned, however, that the early, longer days of Spring were much more difficult. The temperature surpasses sixty degrees, and you immediately start looking for ramps, asparagus, and new potatoes. This, of course, is contrary to all reason and experience - even if you yourself just planted your spring crops - but it doesn’t stop you.
Perhaps that’s why this dish was such a welcome harbinger. It was an authentic spring vegetable, arugula, from this, the last month of Farm to City’s Winter Harvest.
This arugula pesto came from the my ongoing purge. Desperate for something springlike but also rather exhausted from the workday, I found the minimal effort involved in the dish was perfect. I substituted almonds for pine nuts simply because that’s what I had, and I used all pecorino rather than half pecorino and half parmesan. This was partly because I didn’t have any parmesan, but I think the pecorino’s smoother flavor is more appropriate and helps distinguish this from classic pesto. Also, I didn’t use anything like a full cup of olive oil. I add a little oil as I start the food processor, drizzle in more while it purees, but only as needed. This way, I get exactly the texture I want and as little oil as necessary.
It went very well with some whole-grain gemelli, but I think long pasta would work well also. It would also serve as a nice condiment to fish. The bright, lemony flavor would really cut through an oily fish, but it is delicate enough for white-flesh fillet as well.
Tattie Scones: What Your Mashed Potatoes Want To Be
Saturday, March 08, 2014
I love the flexibility of latkes or similarly made potato pancakes - they can be served with breakfast, as an appetizer with any number of delicious things on top, or as a dinner side. I’ve tried to do similar things with pancakes made from leftover mashed potatoes, but they always seemed to come out with a bit of a crust that sticks to the pan and tasting mostly of - well, warmed leftover mashed potatoes. Last week I came across a recipe for a tattie scone, which adds just enough flour and leavening agent to create a pancake that stays together, browns beautifully and tastes of potato, but slightly chewy and springy.
1 1/2 cups leftover mashed potatoes
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Combine mashed potatoes, flour and baking powder thoroughly, forming a dough. (If your mashed potatoes had no butter or salt in them initially, melt a tablespoon of butter and add to mixture along with a generous pinch of salt). Form four or five balls and dust with flour. Heat a large cast iron skillet or nonstick pan on medium and add a teaspoon or so of butter. Flatten each ball of dough in the skillet to a thickness of about half an inch. Cook for a few minutes on each side until browned.
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Since we’re still waiting on the polar vortex to release its death grip once and for all, the only real novelty at the farmers market the past couple of weekends was the return of Taproot Farm’s lovely golden-yolked eggs. I decided to feature them as prominently as possible in dessert form, which meant a vanilla-rich creme anglaise served over a very simple compote of apples, raisins and toasted nuts.
We recently acquired a sous vide machine, so I used it to make both components. Although it makes the custard foolproof and significantly less work than making it the usual way, you certainly don’t need a sous vide for this recipe. I’ve included instructions for making it both ways.
If you’re still in new year healthy eating mode, this is actually a fairly low-sugar dessert, since there’s no added sweetener in the compote.
Apple Compote with Creme Anglaise
5 egg yolks
2 cups half and half
6 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of Maldon or other flaky sea salt
1 vanilla bean
6 firm eating apples, peeled and cored, and sliced in 1/2 inch thick wedges
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup raisins
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (if not cooking sous vide)
3 tablespoons apple cider (if not cooking sous vide)
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans or walnuts
Using a sous vide machine:
Follow these instructions for the creme anglaise, and chill for at least several hours before using.
Toss the sliced apples with the raisins, lemon zest and just enough of the juice to lightly coat them. Vacuum seal the apple mixture or just use a zip-top bag and press out as much air as you can. Cook at 185F for about an hour, until the apples feel tender through the plastic.
Without a sous vide machine:
Split the vanilla bean open and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds and the pod to a small saucepan with the half and half, bringing it just up to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let steep for 15 minutes, then pull out the vanilla pod.
Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. In a smaller bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar and salt. Bring the half and half back up to a simmer, then pour in a thin but even stream into the yolks while continuing to whisk. Scrape the mixture back into the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat a spoon, around 2-4 minutes. Clean the bowl you used for the egg yolks and set it in the ice bath. Pour the custard through a strainer into the smaller bowl to get any stray egg filaments, leaving the custard over the ice bath until it’s at room temperature before transferring to the refrigerator, tightly covered, to chill thoroughly.
Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat, add the apples, sugar, lemon zest and juice. Toss in the pan until the edges begin to caramelize just slightly, then add the cider and raisins and cover the pan, cooking a few minutes more until the apples are tender and the raisins are plump.
Decant the warm apple compote into pretty bowls or stemware. Pour a few tablespoons of creme anglaise over each serving, and top with the nuts. Circulate a pitcher of the remaining custard for your guests to add more to their taste.
Polenta for the Third Time, But This Time My Own
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
I am not sure if I have always associated polenta with winter or whether that came with eating locally. Regardless, at a recent - and utterly fantastic - meal at High Street on Market, I was reminded of how satisfying polenta can be. Since neither the dinner itself nor the leftovers for lunch the next today were enough to satisfy a polenta craving, I had to make more.
I have tried myriad techniques for polenta, and while some worked better than others, the better methods demonstrated that good polenta can’t be cooked quickly (in my opinion). This recipe, adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, is the best combination of oven- and range-cooking polenta that I have come across. As Nigella offers, you could use stock instead of water, but I don’t ever feel polenta needs it - especially if you cook the polenta with a parmigiano rind as I do.
The mushroom ragout, also taken from How to Eat, was satisfying without being exactly what I was looking for. I would add some bacon or pancetta in the next version and probably some tomato paste as well. Additionally, the ragout did not thicken or cohere as it should - even with the addition of flour.
None of this, of course, stopped me from eating it twice; the second time, as breakfast with a poached egg, was even better than the first.
What’s best about this meal, and most important about this post, is that it highlights two excellent products from Winter Harvest: a mix of cremini, shiitake, oyster, and trumpet mushrooms from Oley Valley Mushrooms and, of course, the polenta.
Vegetarian Mapo Tofu
Sunday, February 16, 2014
I’ve yet to meet an Asian noodle dish I didn’t like. My favorites lately, particularly on cold days, are those dishes with a lovely gravy-like sauce such as dan dan noodles or especially mapo tofu. Since we have such wonderful locally produced tofu, I thought this might be a good dish to try at home where I could also use local pork or even go vegetarian.
While I’ve made this recipe in the traditional manner, with ground pork and small cubes of tofu, and it was delicious, here I decided to use all tofu and crumble it, adding small, diced delicata squash that had been sitting around. Any winter squash would likely work, but delicata is particularly useful since it peels easily and cooks quickly, remaining slightly firm. The recipe below is adapted from Epicurious. In addition to swapping out the pork for squash, I also make the sauce on its own rather than adding the components to the dish, as I’ve found simmering the sauce separately and incorporating at the end creates sauce that’s nicely thickened without overcooking the squash. This dish comes together remarkably quickly.
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 scallions, sliced, with whites and green separated
1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger
1 delicata squash, peeled and diced in ½” cubes
1 pound tofu
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 tablespoons bean paste
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tbsp water
Combine bean paste, soy sauce and chicken broth. Heat in small saucepan over medium heat, adding cornstarch dissolved in water. Simmer until sauce thickens slightly. Set aside.
Heat sesame oil over medium heat in a wok or saucepan. Add garlic, the whites of the scallions and ginger and cook for one minute. Add delicata squash and stir fry until squash cooks to desired texture. Add crumbled tofu and sauce. Cook together for one minute or until sauce thickens to desired consistency and add greens of scallions and parsley. Serve over rice or noodles of your choice.
Review, Learn Anew: Improving My Braise
Monday, February 03, 2014
My favorite cookbook series is River Cottage by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, et. al., and from that series, my favorite single book is (the imaginatively titled) Meat. The range of recipes - from Asian pork belly to turkey mole - is as impressive as the resulting food. Even better, Fearnley-Whittingstall devotes pages to specific techniques for cooking meat: grilling, slow roasting, braising, etc. Before attempting my chicken and dumplings this year, I reviewed Fearnley-Whittingstall’s comments on braising, gleaning some important lessons. The results were my best by far.
Lesson 1: The Importance of Pork Fat
Whether it is simply fatback or something more flavorful like the PorcSalt smoked bacon I used here, the underpinning of flavor and textural contribution of the fat are essential.
Lesson 2: Pay Attention to the Vegetables
I have always thought of leeks as supplanting onions in recipes. It turns out that this view is rather simplistic. They can, in fact, compliment onions beautifully. A similar thing can be said for celeriac (celery root) and parsnips. Celeriac also makes a lighter and less starchy substitute for potato.
Lesson 3: Searing Meat Separately
Essential to a flavorful braise is soundly caramelized meat. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s suggestion is to sear the meat separately in a lightly oiled pan, add to the braise, then deglaze the pan with wine and then add that to the braise. Brilliant.
Lesson 4: Simmer Does Not Mean Boil
In a lengthy explanation that I won’t reproduce here, Fearnley-Whittingstall explains the importance of a very slow simmer in cooking the meat correctly. The meat cooks long enough to dissolve tough connective tissue without the tenderer pieces becoming. He even quotes Elizabeth David. What’s not to love?
Bubble and Squeak
Thursday, January 30, 2014
I’m sure they don’t eat bubble and squeak like this in Singapore, but in theory they could, and given how awful the weather has been since around Thanksgiving, pretending to be in Singapore is highly appealing at the moment.
The “Singaporean” element in this version of the traditional British use for leftover vegetables is a curry-esque spice blend, which brightens up the potatoes and works nicely with the poached egg that makes this a meal instead of a side dish. It could be replaced with the regular curry powder of your choice. Although I prefer this with brussels sprouts, you can use cabbage or any other leafy green you can find in the markets for the next however many months this winter’s going to last.
Singaporean Bubble and Squeak with Poached Eggs
(Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cottage Veg, 2011)
2-3 potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 pint brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
2 tablespoons vegetable stock
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons Penzeys Singapore Seasoning, or 1 teaspoon curry powder
2 large eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender, then drain and set aside while preparing the brussels sprouts.
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat and add the sprouts, cut-side down, leaving them untouched long enough to brown nicely. Add the stock and cover the pan for a few more minutes until the liquid has been absorbed and the sprouts are cooked but not mushy. Remove from the pan.
Add the remaining oil to the pan and cook the onions until soft and golden but not browning, then add the garlic and Singapore seasoning and cook two more minutes. Tumble in the potatoes and lightly break up and mash them with the spatula to encourage more browning as you periodically stir the vegetables. When the potatoes are brown and crispy enough for you, add the brussels sprouts and cook a few more minutes while poaching the eggs.
Bring a few inches of water and a splash of white vinegar to a strong simmer in a small sauce pan. Crack each egg into a teacup for easier transfer, and using a slotted spoon, create a quick whirlpool before slipping the eggs from their cups into the water. Simmer gently for 3 minutes, lift them quickly out with the slotted spoon, and gently turn them onto a plate lined with paper towels to finish draining them. Snip away any stray wisps of egg white to make them prettier if you like, though I don’t bother.
Divide the bubble and squeak between two shallow bowls, and top each mound with a poached egg. Gently break open the membrane over the yolks just enough to let you salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.
Monday, January 20, 2014
I find quince to be utterly perplexing. Superficially, they are quite unappealing: they look like gnarled fuzzy pears and are completely inedible raw. Yet, they have a heady aroma uncooked and scented my fridge for weeks. Moreover, once cooked, they can undergo a miraculous transformation into a brightly colored godsend called membrillo (quince paste). How does this happen?
Despite these contradictions, which might ward off a more reasonable person, I purchase them at least once a year before the Headhouse Market closes up, and, hopefully, find something to make before its too late. Last year, it was an English-style christmas pudding from Nigel Slater. This year, I decided to delve into one of my Christmas presents: Yottam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem.
At first glance, one would not think that a recipe from Jerusalem would have a place on a blog about local food. However, most items were easily sourced at the local level: Tom Culton’s quince purchased from the Headhouse Market; local lamb purchased from Green Aisle Grocery; and the other vegetables were purchased through Winter Harvest. There were a few imported ingredients here, but they were dry goods or specialty items simply unavailable locally. We use items like these as an opportunity to support small growers elsewhere just as we support small growers here.
And so, we were easily able to enjoy a small piece of warm Jerusalem in cold Philadelphia.
New Year’s Brunch 2014
Sunday, January 12, 2014
I would like to pretend that the healthy tilt of our New Year’s Brunch represents an earnest start to the new year, a healthier beginning to a healthier year. More likely, it is a too-little-too-late compensation for the indulgences of the night before, when we had too much wine and too many rich foods. The previous night, we indulged in Supper’s special New Year’s Eve menu. It was fantastic (as always), but as the name implies, a special meal for a special occasion. One can’t eat like that everyday.
So here we have buckwheat crepes, omelettes, yogurt, and home-cured salmon as a counterweight to the gluttony that closed 2013. The buckwheat flour was locally grown and milled and purchased from the Fair Food Farmstand. The eggs, yogurt, and scallions are courtesy of Winter Harvest. Though the salmon was not local, it was sustainably raised, and the good people of Ippolito’s were able to recommend the best particular fillet for curing.
Salt-curing fish is surprisingly easy - as long as you have some suitably sized containers and fridge space. I follow Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s method from Fish. Though the original recipe is for trout, as he notes, it can be applied to most any oily fish. In the past, I would flavor it as Hugh does, with fresh dill. However, that didn’t seem the right flavor for January 1st, so I mixed rye berries into the curing mix instead. Unfortunately, the rye flavor was barely discernible. I suppose that I need to treat the rye berries before adding them to the curing mix (salt and sugar) - perhaps grinding them in a mortar and pestle or soaking them. Even without the rye flavor, the fish was well worth it and gave me the illusion of having made up for my decadent New Year’s Eve meal. And that’s all the excuse I need.
Warm Food for Cold Days
Sunday, December 29, 2013
The intervening days between Christmas and New Years’ can be long on time, short on daylight, and (usually) low in temperature. All of this, of course, means that we tend to spend mornings with newspapers, Christmas music, cappuccino, and things warm from the oven. Given the prevalence of heavy savory dishes and even heavier desserts during the holiday season, we try to make our morning pastry as healthy as possible. To do that, we rely heavily on the Babycakes cookbooks (here and here). Erin McKenna’s recipes are gluten free, eschew refined sugar, and frequently use spelt flour. In short, Erin lets us feel like we have having our cake and eating it, too.
Adapted from this scone recipe.
Apple Maple Walnut Scones
2 cups whole spelt flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup coconut oil
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup diced apple
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1. Preheat the oven to 375 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and walnuts. Stir in the syrup and oil. Add enough hot water to form a batter. Next, fold in the apples.
2. Scoop 1/4 cup mounds of batter onto the lined baking sheet. Bake on the center rack for 10 minutes, rotate, and then bake for another 10 minutes. Let them cool - just not, heaven forbid, completely.
Note: Working with coconut oil can be tricky, as it solidifies at room temperature. I heat the jar in extremely hot water as I preheat the oven and gather the other ingredients. This ensures I have enough liquid oil when I need to add it to the batter. I also make sure that the hot water I add to the batter is quite hot and work as quickly as I can.
Mixed Mushroom Tart for the Holidays
Sunday, December 22, 2013
This tart of mixed, flavorful local mushrooms was the vegetarian main course at Thanksgiving this year, although you could really make it year-round. It would be lovely as a make-ahead summer brunch item, for example.
I think the variety of textures that this combination of mushrooms offers is ideal, but it would also be good with plain cremini mushrooms, if that’s all you have. If you use portobellos, just be sure to remove the dark gills first, as they tend to turn everything unpleasantly black.
(Adapted from Michael Ruhlman, Ratio, 2009)
9 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, in small pieces
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2-3 ounces ice water
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
8 ounces mushrooms, preferably a combination of maitake, shiitake and oyster, cleaned and roughly torn
1 cup half and half
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
Several grinds each of fresh nutmeg and black pepper
1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
Combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl, and work in the butter with a pastry blender or your fingers until no pieces are larger than a pea. Gently mix in the water a bit at a time, just until the dough holds together. Shape the dough into a disk, wrap tightly in plastic wrap or a zip-top bag, and refrigerate an hour or more.
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to fit a 9-inch tart pan, and press into the pan, cutting away any excess. Cover the surface with a layer of foil or parchment paper, and fill with rice or pie weights to prevent buckling. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the weights and bake 15-20 more minutes, until golden brown.
In a skillet, heat two tablespoons of the oil over medium heat and cook down the onions until dark gold. Spread them evenly in the bottom of the baked tart shell. Raise the heat under the pan slightly, add the remaining oil, and toss in the mushrooms, sautéing until any liquid has evaporated and the surfaces are gold and crisp in spots. Top the onion layer with enough mushrooms to mostly fill the tart shell, setting aside any extra for another use.
In a large liquid measuring cup, whisk together the half and half, eggs, salt, nutmeg and pepper, and gently pour into the tart. Sprinkle the top with the cheese and the thyme leaves stripped off the stems.Set the tart pan onto a rimmed cookie sheet to catch any drips, and bake at 325 F until the custard has just set (a little bit of jiggle in the very middle is fine) and the top has browned nicely, around 30 minutes. Cool at least to warm room temperature before serving.
Winter Harvest Comes Through (Again)
Saturday, December 14, 2013
In the early years of our eating local, when we wanted an antidote to rich, heavy holiday meals and even the local greens were dwindling, we’d have little choice but to buy a giant pack of French green beans from Whole Foods and call it dinner. No more.
Winter Harvest is full of opportunities to make a light, refreshing meal that even tastes a bit like summer. Shore Catch is one of those “never thought I’d see it” items to appear on the Winter Harvest product list - locally and sustainably caught seafood. It was hard to mess up the beautiful piece of sushi grade Ahi tuna that came in our order this week, but we took no chances and made a simple tartare - hardly a recipe with one pound tuna, three tablespoons each of olive oil and lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. We added scallions and parsley, also from our order, and ate it with a potato pancake made with Savoie Organic Farm’s wonderful Kennebecs.
A Holiday Fruit Cake (not Fruitcake)
Saturday, November 30, 2013
As should be pretty clear by now, quinces are one of my favorite fall/winter fruits, and since they’re sadly a bit of a luxury to find, I generally mix them with apples to stretch them further, and because they get along so well together, as in this fragrant and holiday-appropriate cake. If you don’t care for or can’t find quinces, you can make the cake with just apples and apple butter, as the original recipe did, and it will also be great.
If you don’t make your own quince jam, you can often find it in Mediterranean or Middle Eastern markets. More likely, you’ll instead be able to find the dried and pressed Spanish version, dulce de membrillo, at your local cheese shop, which will work just fine once loosened back up with a bit of extra liquid.
Apple-Quince Bundt Cake
(Adapted from Dorie Greenspan, Baking: From My Home to Yours, 2006)
1 large quince, or 1/2 cup golden raisins
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup quince jam, or quince paste gently heated with enough water to loosen to a jam-like consistency
2 tart-sweet apples, peeled, cored and grated
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned and roughly chopped
1/3 cup powdered sugar
2-3 tablespoons apple cider or milk
If using the quince, peel and core it, then chop it into four or so large pieces. Poach the quince in just enough water to cover until it has changed color (anywhere from buttery-yellow to salmon, depending on the variety) and is tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Drain off the liquid, chop the quince into small dice, and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F, and butter and flour a large (12-cup) bundt pan.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and salt.
Place the butter and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and cream together until smooth and thick. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well between additions, then beat in the quince jam at lower speed. Mix in the grated apple, followed by the dry ingredients, mixing only until incorporated. Fold in the diced quince or raisins and the hazelnuts.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the top is golden and springy, and a cake tester inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then unmold the cake and cool completely.
To glaze the cake, mix just enough cider or milk into the powdered sugar to make a thick but free-flowing icing. Drizzle the icing evenly over the cake, letting it run down the sides. Let the icing firm up before slicing the cake.
Leftovers keep well in an airtight container for 2-3 days, although it’s best to glaze it the same day you serve it.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Did you know that Seckel pears are native to Philadelphia? The story is either that they’re the only native American pear, or that farmers in this area bred them from European varieties, but either way they’re from Philly.
Even without the local connection, these little guys are one of my favorite varieties, since apart from being cute, they’re both firm and flavorful. That makes them ideal for poaching, although why stop there? Baked on top of a buttery pastry base and a rich almond cream, Seckel pears make a wonderful cookie or a party-ready tart, and their poaching syrup is a perfect contribution to fall-themed cocktails.
Seckel Pear Frangipane Bars
(Adapted from French Pear Tart in Dorie Greenspan, Baking: From My Home to Yours, 2006)
Serves 18-24 as a cookie, 12 as a dessert
For the poached pears:
2 lbs Seckel pears (around a dozen or so)
1 cup granulated sugar
3 cups water
3 strips lemon rind
1 vanilla bean, split
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
Pinch of salt
For the pastry base:
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
3/8 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large egg yolks
For the almond cream:
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons ground blanched almonds
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 large egg plus 1 yolk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat , then lower to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. In the meantime, peel, halve and core the pears. Add the pears to the pot, along with the lemon, vanilla, peppercorns and salt. Simmer until the pears are tender, about 15 minutes. Refrigerate the pears in their syrup until ready to bake.
In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar and salt for the base and pulse several times to combine. Scatter the butter pieces over the top, and pulse again until the largest pieces are the size of peas. Beat the yolks briefly with a teaspoon or so of water to lighten them, then add to the processor through the feed tube with the motor running. Stop as soon as the egg is incorporated and small clumps have started to form.
Line a quarter sheet pan with enough parchment to overhang the sides by a couple of inches, dump the pastry onto the lined sheet, and gently press it into the bottom and up the sides, just until it holds together. Cover the lined sheet with plastic wrap and freeze for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375F and butter one side of a piece of foil large enough to cover the surface of the dough. Remove the plastic wrap and replace it with the foil. Bake in the center of the oven for 25 minutes, until the pastry has set but is not browned. Remove the foil and cool completely.
Combine the butter and sugar in a food processor and run until a smooth paste forms. Add the almonds and process again until blended, then repeat with the flour and cornstarch. Add the egg and yolk and process just until incorporated, then add the vanilla and almond extracts and pulse briefly again. Spread the almond cream evenly over the chilled pastry base.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Remove the pear halves from the syrup and gently pat dry with paper towels to prevent excess syrup from making the filling soggy. Slice a pear half thinly, keeping the slices together, then lift the sliced half with a spatula and carefully place onto the almond cream in the bottom left corner of the pan, pressing down just enough to fan out the slices a bit. Repeat the process with enough pears to mostly cover the cream in evenly spaced rows (around 18 pear halves total).
Bake 50-60 minutes, until the cream has set around the pears and turned deep golden brown. Cool to at least room temperature before lifting the entire sheet out of its pan by its parchment. Slice into cookie-sized bars or tart-sized squares according to your preference. Serve the same day if possible, although they keep well in the refrigerator for a day or so.