You may well think that the perfect flavour combination at this time of year is blackberry and apple but you'd be wrong... that is so last month! Surely right now it has to be pear and vanilla.
I'm not really sure when I first tried the pear and vanilla combination but it is a true winner. I have a preserves recipe book in my cupboard with a cover image that is poached pears in a kilner jar with a pod of vanilla in with it. This very well may have been the inspiration for me first trying this combination. When my eldest was a baby and I was making baby food for the weaning process I used to steam some pears with a bit of a vanilla pod then blend it and thicken it with baby rice and it was her all time favourite food. If you are in the process of weaning a baby right now have a look at my weaning guide All Gone for more recipes for babies. But for me weaning is well and truly over but I still hanker after ways of using this beautiful combination of flavours.
A few years ago when my mum brought round a basket full of pears from her tree I tried making some of them into pear jam. For those of you who don't know, pears are a low pectin fruit so make a jam that is hard to set. It's funny really when you think about it because they are so closely related to apples which are so full of pectin it is hard not to set the jam too firmly. Some people resort to using jam sugar on such occasions because it contains added pectin but I have always thought that is a bit of a cheat and I'm always up for a challenge. So I hunted the internet and came across a recipe for pear and lemon jam, the lemon adding pectin as well as helping to extract pectin from the pears. I tried this and achieved a fairly runny jam and didn't feel particularly satisfied with the result. Pear and lemon... who thought that was a good combo?
So several years later, and now with my own pear trees bearing fruit, I have returned to the issue of making a satisfactory pear jam. One thing I have learnt in the meantime is how to make my own pectin. This can be done quite simply by boiling up apple peelings and cores in some water for about half and hour or so then draining off the liquid. I do this usually when making apple & ginger jam or some sort of apple chutney. The liquid that is created is the apple pectin. You can test the quality of your pectin if you choose by dropping a small amount of it into methylated spirits or rubbing alcohol. If you have good quality pectin the stuff you have dropped in should form a ball. I don't usually bother with this bit as it seems to work out well every time. Instead, I just pour the liquid into an ice-cube tray and freeze it until required.
Now armed with a tray full of homemade pectin, I decided to embark upon the pear jam quest once again but this time with added vanilla. I confess, I still used the juice of a lemon in with the cooking pears to try to extract as much pectin from the pears as possible but I did not want this to be the dominating flavour. Instead, I added half a vanilla pod to the pears whilst they were cooking and for added flavour, half the sugar I used was vanilla sugar. If you are mad enough you can buy vanilla sugar from the supermarket for some ridiculously expensive price. On the other hand, with a little bit of organisation you can make your own: Put a load of granulated sugar in the largest jar you can find, pausing briefly in the pouring process to poke in a vanilla pod. That's it! Even after a few days the flavour of vanilla has begun to permeate the sugar but I always have a jar of vanilla sugar in my cupboard and simply replace the sugar and vanilla pod each time I use the sugar up so I always have some with a good strong flavour.
So this time, with added apple pectin I managed to attain the set of a runny honey! It's never going to set like blackcurrant jam but at least it won't run off your toast. With a flavour reminiscent of fairy cakes, I'm thinking this jam is also going to be lovely in cake recipes and for glazing under icing etc.
Pear & Vanilla Jam
Ingredients (makes 3 to 4 jars)
3 lb (1400 g) pears
16½ fl oz (450 ml) water
1/2 vanilla pod
Juice of 1 lemon
3 lb 6 oz (1570 g) sugar (half of this can be vanilla sugar)
10 fl oz (300ml) apple pectin
Peel, cut the pears into pieces and core. Place in a preserving pan with the water, lemon juice and vanilla pod and bring slowly to the boil. Simmer the pears for about 10 minutes until they are soft and pulpy. In the meantime warm the sugar. Once the fruit is cooked, remove the vanilla pod, cut it length ways and scrap out the tiny seeds and add these to the pears. Discard the remaining bit of the vanilla pod. Add the sugar and apple pectin and stir over a low heat until all the sugar is dissolved. Boil rapidly for 8 to 12 minutes until the setting point in reached. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.
How many times have I typed the word vanilla so far? The word vanilla and not once the word ice-cream. How can we consider vanilla without ice-cream?! This is not a new thought for me and back to the time of the basket full off my mum's pears I invented pear and vanilla ice-cream, using the same technique I used for the baby food. So this week I made a batch of pear and vanilla ice-cream too... divine.
Pear & Vanilla Ice-cream (make 1 pint)
3-4 perfectly ripe pears
2 cm length of vanilla pod
2 oz (55 g) icing sugar
4 fl oz (110 ml) milk
5 fl oz (147ml) double cream
Peel, core and chop the pears into pieces. Cut the piece of vanilla pod in half length-ways and scrape the seeds out onto the pieces of pear then add the pod shells to the pears too. Steam the pears and vanilla together for 10 minutes until very soft. Remove the pod shells then blend the pears until totally smooth in a food processor, adding the sugar towards the end of the blending process. Allow the pear puree to cool down then mix the puree with the milk and double cream. Pour into suitable containers and freeze for 2-3 hours. Remove from the freezer and beat then return to the freezer. Repeat over two hours until solid.
Oh, but that's not the end of it.... remember last week when my eldest suggested I wrote a cheesecake recipe book? What could be better that pear and vanilla cheesecake. So yesterday I gave it a go... Baked pear and vanilla cheesecake... yummy! My eldest thinks it tastes strongly of vanilla, my youngest thinks it tastes strongly of pears... both are happy!
Pear & Vanilla Cheesecake
4 oz (110g) crushed digestive biscuits
2 oz (55g) melted butter
4 ripe pears
1/2 vanilla pod
7 oz (200g) soft cheese
3 oz (85g) caster sugar
4 fl oz (115ml) whipping cream
To make the base: Crush the biscuits with the end of a rolling pin until finely crushed. Melt the butter and mix it with the biscuit crumbs. Press the mix firmly into the bottom of a flan dish and refrigerate.
To make the filling: Peel, core and chop the pears then place in a steamer with the vanilla pod for about 10 minutes until very soft. Cut the vanilla pod in half length ways and scrape out the seeds and add these to the pears and discard the pod. Place the pears in a blender and blend until smooth then set aside to cool.
Preheat oven to 180 °C, gas mark 4. Cream together the cheese and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and cream and whisk until thick. Stir in the pear puree then pour the mixture over the base. Bake for 25 minutes the switch off the oven but leave the cheesecake inside with the door shut for another 20 minutes. After that, open the door and leave it to cool for about another 10 minutes before removing from the oven. This process continues to cook the cheesecake gently then stops it cracking as it cools. Refrigerate and serve chilled.