Cassia Blossom Steamed Pears

桂花蒸梨

This thoroughly modern dessert of steamed, chilled pears filled with an intriguing honey and Cognac syrup dates back to the ninth century. Then, in the golden age of the Tang dynasty, it was already common to combine the “cool”-natured pear with the “warming” qualities of cassia, honey, and wine. According to the same yin-yang culinary rule, the soon-to-be velvety pear was frequently stuffed with nuts or bits of chewy dried fruit to offer a nice contrast of texture.

  • This, in my opinion, is authentic Chinese dessert cooking at its finest. It deserves the prettiest pears, an excellent, subtle honey, and a trip to Chinatown to search for cassia blossoms. If you must have them tonight, put a slip of cinnamon bark in the core of each pear, then extract it prior to serving. The bark is a near-relative to the blossom and will imbue the filling with an appropriate spice.
  • I find rock-hard Anjous give the best results. The hard fruit has had no chance to grow grainy or sandy, and holds up best to the heat. Choose chubby, squat pears that are easy to fill and flat-bottomed ones that will not topple when steamed. A 7–8-ounce pear will do for a dainty dessert, or an 8–12-ounce pear for a more substantial one. I usually opt for the bigger size, which is easier to fill.
  • For peak flavor, make the pears 12 hours to 2 days in advance, and chill thoroughly before serving. With the incitement to make them in advance and their elegant presentation, this is a superb dessert for entertaining.

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Ingredients

  • 4 large or 6 smaller hard, green, unblemished Anjou pears (to equal 3 pounds)

To fill the pears

  • 6 tablespoons wild-flower honey
  • 2 rounded tablespoons white raisins
  • 1 rounded teaspoon cassia blossoms or as many thin slips of fragrant cinnamon bark as you have pears, or several drops orange-flower water for each pear
  • tablespoons Cognac

Method

Coring and stuffing the pears

Combine the honey, raisins, cassia blossoms, and Cognac. Stir well to blend, then put the mixture aside to plump the raisins and develop the flavors.

Neatly slice off the top of each pear about 1 inch from the stem end, in a straight line so the top will not slide off during steaming. Leave stems and leaves intact, for decoration. Put each cap alongside its pear, to match them up properly later on.

Core the pears with a sturdy fruit corer and a knife if needed, as described above in TECHNIQUE NOTES. Be careful not to cut through the bottom and to leave ¼–½ inch of solid pear at the base. Make the gouged-out column as wide as possible, while leaving a ¼–½-inch wide rim of pear around the top of the hole. Do not worry about losing a lot of pear. The filling is as scrumptious as the fruit, so eat the trimmings in good conscience.

Pour an equal amount of the honey mixture into each pear, portioning the raisins evenly among them. Replace the tops, and adjust for an invisible fit.

Steaming the pears

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Stand the pears close together in a Pyrex pie plate or heatproof quiche plate at least 1 inch smaller than the diameter of your steamer. Or, steam the pears in individual bowls if your steamer can accommodate them. The pears will render a lot of juice, so choose bowls at least 2 inches deep.

Choose the largest possible vessel to fit under your steamer, to avoid having to refill it frequently during the lengthy steaming. Fill with water to come 1 inch below the steamer tray or rack, then bring the water to a gushing boil over high heat. Cover the pears-tightly once the steam begins to gush, reduce the heat to medium, then steam the pears 45 minutes–2 hours, until the fruit feels soft to the touch. While steaming, check periodically to replace any lids that slip off and replenish the steamer with boiling water as required. When checking the pears, lift the lid slowly and as little as possible so a sudden change in temperature will not wrinkle the skin.

When the pears feel soft turn off the heat and let them sit in the covered steamer for 10 minutes. Then lift the lid and remove the juices from around the pears with a clean bulb-top baster. Take the pears from the steamer and let them cool in the plate for 20 minutes, while the juices cool separately to prevent them from overcooking.

For best flavor, surround the pears with the juices once cool, seal airtight, and refrigerate 1–2 days before serving.

Serve the pears well chilled. Stand them upright in individual bowls or in stem goblets, caps on and surrounded by the sweet juices. Garnish, if desired, with a sprig of tiny white flowers or green leaves to offset the gold of the fruit. Don’t be distressed if the skin has wrinkled after all. It is forgotten with the first bite of pear.

Sealed and stored in the refrigerator, the pears will keep upwards of a week without losing their flavor.

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