Sloe and steady
Sometimes it’s worth spending a lot of time on a bake. Poaching pears in gin transforms them into a ready-made dessert that’s delicious in its own right, but they really shine as the surprise ingredient in a cobnut and polenta cake ...
Cobnuts, pears and sloes make for a special marriage of autumn flavours this week. Using sloes from the hedgerow is the definition of slow cooking, as they take months to cure in alcohol and sugar before being ready to drink or cook with. There are, of course some delicious sloe gins on the market, so you won’t need to wait until next year to make these recipes, but I bet some of you have your own homemade sloe gin from last year, and I would love to know if you used some of it in these recipes.
I have created two recipes that are linked – in the first we cook the pears with unusual and exciting flavours for a dish that can be served in its own right. The second, however, uses the cooked fruit of the first within its recipe — like a play within a play.
Poaching is easy and transforms under-ripened pears into something exceptional. The firm flesh of a Williams pear (called a Bartlett in North America) becomes soft and silky in this preparation – poaching in alcohol adds a nice amount of bitterness to the delicate fruit’s sweet perfume. A hearty meal is finished to perfection with one of these gin-poached pears, a drizzle of honey and the reduced poaching liquid. Of course, creme fraiche is always welcome with pears too. I like to poach extra pears and use them in other recipes, as they keep well for a couple of weeks in the fridge and I often use the leftover poaching liquid in desserts or aperitifs.
The second recipe uses the poached pears with fresh cobnuts or hazelnuts and fine polenta flour in a gluten-free cake. It could be made with fresh, ripe comice pears, but the sloe gin-poached pears work really well here and the time and care you have put into baking this cake shows in the eating. Sometimes the easy and fast recipe is not what you’re looking for. Sometimes you want to take time over a bake, so I say: go all the way.
Sloe gin-poached pears
Makes600g sloe6 gin 600ml water 200g caster sugar 1 vanilla bean 6 pears Honey and creme fraiche, to serve
1 In a heavy-based pot just large enough to hold 6 pears, add the gin, water, sugar and vanilla. Heat slowly to dissolve the sugar. Peel the pears whole, keeping the stem intact if possible, and gently lower them into the poaching liquid. Cook at a slow simmer (bubbles no larger than of fizzy water) for 45 minutes to an hour – they should be soft when pierced with the tip of a knife.
2 Delicately lift the pears with a slotted spoon from the poaching liquid. Trim a few millimetres off their bottoms to create a flat surface they can stand upright on. Put the pot over a high heat and reduce the poaching liquid by half. Serve the pears warm with drizzled honey, creme fraiche and a spoonful of the reduced poaching liquid.
3 To use the pears in baking, let them cool completely in the liquid. When ready, use according to your recipe.
Pear and polenta cobnut cake
Serves 8 Butter, for greasing 150g cobnuts, shelled (about 300g with shells) or hazelnuts 140g fine polenta flour 40g tapioca flour (or cornflour) 1 tsp baking powder 1 tsp fine sea salt 6 poached pears (about 1.2kg) drained, reserving the liquid 125g unsalted butter, softened 125g brown sugar 4 eggs A grating of nutmeg 75g honey 1 Preheat the oven to 170C/335F/gas mark 3½. Butter and line a 23cm cake tin with baking parchment.
2 Toast the cobnuts or hazelnuts. Allow them to cool completely before finely chopping.
3 Whisk together the chopped nuts, polenta, tapioca flour, baking powder and salt, then set aside.
4 Slice the poached pears in half, core them and cut each half into 4 wedges. Set these aside too.
5 In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, then grate in the nutmeg.
6 Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and mix until just combined. Scoop into the prepared tin and smooth the top. Arrange the sliced pears on top and drizzle with 50g of honey.
7 Bake for 1 hour or until golden and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Drizzle with the remaining honey. Serve warm, or at room temperature, with creme fraiche or on its own. Keeps in the fridge for up to three days.
Alcohol poaching liquids add a nice amount of bitterness to the delicate fruit’s sweet perfume ...
Cook’s tip Interesting but concise tip to go in here and here Cook’s tip Fresh cobnuts are delicious, but take time to crack open. Shell them the night before and keep them in the fridge so you can get on with baking the next day.