See this piece of pear & amaretto pie? It’s so pretty and unassuming, right? You would never think it’s been the bane of my existence for 11 long years. But it has. For 11 long years I’ve been making it every so often in the hopes of recapturing my apparent beginner’s luck of so long ago…when I actually nailed it so sweetly and completely that I heard angels sing in my head when I took my first bite.
They weren’t there before….the angels, I mean….which is another way of reassuring you that I’m not craaaaazy or anything. But when I took my first bite of that pie, they DID magically appear and made a sound so honeyed and stirring, that I longed to hear it again and again. Maybe that’s what the men were fighting with the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey… So I guess maybe this makes me a little bit craaaaazy after all…
But back to the pie.
If I were to deconstruct that luscious first pie, I would have to say that first and foremost the crust took it to a whole other level. The cornmeal gave it a pleasantly grainy texture that made it so satisfying to chew. The experience was akin to biting into a nice piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano and feeling that granular quality in your mouth. Hmmmm good, I know.
Then, there’s the matter of the spiced pears. Cooking delicious pears in dry red wine and sugar and then adding just a little Saigon cinnamon created a delicious filling for the pie that went incredibly well with the cornmeal crust. Like Laurel & Hardy. It also left slightly sweetened and pear-infused wine to drink afterwards. And that wasn’t a bad thing.
Finally, we have the glue that tied everything together, the Amaretti di Saronno cookies. They added an unexpected hint of earthy, slightly tart almond flavor, and in so doing became the almost smoky base note of the pie.
What can I tell you…the combination just really worked.
And when you experience this sort of bliss at the hands of 4 pears, a few Amaretto cookies, and a cup of cornmeal, you don’t think it too much to ask to relive the experience.
But apparently it was.
That’s right, all the while, through 11 years of ill-starred attempts at recreating that initial pie magic, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. All I knew was that the crust was off. Horribly off. It was pasty and lacked that crumbly, granular quality that had made it so appealing the first go around. It was also not light tasting. Instead, the crust turned into sludge in the mouth. Yuck.
And with each failure, Erik and I would listlessly eat each pie out of a sense of moral obligation, to avoid wasting ‘perfectly good food.’ Not to mention that this perfectly good food had also taken me quite a while to put together.
Painful times, folks. Painful times.
Finally, for the last good three years or so, I gave up. With all the desserts in the world that I could be making, I wasn’t going to allow one little itty bitty pie to become my obsession. That’s what I told myself over and over again, anyway.
So each time I would go to the cookbook where I found this wretched jewel of a pie, I would quickly flip through the page that contained its beguiling picture, and distract myself with some other enticing recipe. (There are many in this cookbook, titled Piedmont: Traditional Cuisine from the Piedmontese Provinces. )
For three years I had peace.
Until a recent dinner party, that is, when that little pie came to the forefront of my conscious mind and demanded I make it. Really. It did. Just ask the pie.
I am the only worthy dessert to the Cannelloni alla Barbaroux you are making as the main dish, it said.
(The cannelloni are actually crepes that have been stuffed with a filling made from ground pork roast, prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and then lightly covered with béchamel sauce and baked.)
“But you are lunar, unpredictable, not to mention a source of constant disappointment!” I protested. “Plus, you are a downright pain in my ass!!”
Good lord, pull yourself together woman. I heard the pie sigh. I’m not the cure for cancer, for Pete’s sake. Just look me over and use that spaghetti between your ears to figure out how to make me your master…and not the other way around! You’re starting to embarrass me.
I swear I heard contempt in her voice. The nerve…
But I did look over the recipe, nevertheless, because I’m listening to the spirit of an 11 year-old pie and I’m clearly insane.
And in rereading it, I became aware of how I had acquired more knowledgeable as a cook and baker than I had even just a few years ago. The thing or two that I have learned made me realize, when critically looking at the recipe, that, in order to nail the crust, perhaps I needed to use room-temperature ingredients.
You see, I didn’t know about the importance of using room-temperature butter and eggs when making certain desserts years ago. But now I do. That’s what made me leave the eggs and butter out on the kitchen counter the night before I made the crust for this pie. Sometimes perfection comes to us through the simplest of techniques.
So that’s the first change I made to my attempts at making this recipe.
Secondly, I had always found the pastry dough just a little too dry to deal with and decided to remove a ¼ cup of white flour and to add 1 additional tablespoon of butter.
I then crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
And it worked!
Apparently those few changes were all it took, people, to recreate the magic.
I knew I had triumphed even before baking the pie. I knew because as I was working the dough, I was able to roll it out without adding a few drops of ice water to help it stick together…just like the first time I made it.
I also knew it because when I bit into it, after it had baked and cooled, the angels returned with their hypnotic melodies. It was a beautiful moment.
Best of all, the pie finally shut up, allowing me finally to have both peace AND pie.
making pear & amaretto pie
When making this pie, start prepping 2 ½ lbs. of red or green d’Anjou pears, generally 4 is the magic number, by quartering them lengthwise. Normally I would use green ones, since they are slightly cheaper and are just as delicious, but they were looking rather sad at the market and so I bypassed them for their fierier compatriots.
Peel each quarter and remove its part of the core. Cut each quarter into 3 slices, lengthwise.
Put them in a medium-sized pan and add 1 ¼ cup dry red table wine, 5 tablespoons of white, granulated sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon. Bring to a boil on medium high heat, mix well and then cook for 10 minutes.
Using a lid to keep the pears in the pan, tilt the pan over a measuring cup and pour off the liquid. Allow the pears to cool.
Make the pastry dough. Mix 1 3/4 cups of unbleached white flour and 1 cup of very fine cornmeal, preferably yellow in a large bowl.
I used my trusty KitchenAid for the task.
(If you have trouble finding very finely ground yellow cornmeal, just use ¾ cups of medium grind cornmeal
and grind it for 20 seconds or so in a well cleaned out coffee grinder.
That will give you a cup – give or take – of very fine cornmeal. Voila!)
Add ½ cup superfine or caster sugar and a dash of salt and mix again.
Then add 3 room-temperature egg yolks.
When done, the ‘batter’ will resemble breadcrumbs.
Gather 1/3 of these crumbs together to form a pastry ball.
This pastry will not be remotely elastic. Wrap into plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Use the other 2/3 of the pastry ‘crumbs’ to line the bottom and sides of an ungreased 9-inch pie dish.
Place the ‘dough’ in the pan and then work it to an even thickness on the bottom and the sides using your fingers. Like this…
Continue patting down the crumbs and work your way towards the sides so that the dough looks like this around the edges of the pan:
When finished, your pie shell will look like this:
Chill the uncooked pie shell in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Take the pie shell out of the refrigerator, place 15 crumbled Amaretto cookie snaps on the bottom of the chilled shell and then arrange the pears on top.
If you can at all find the Lazzaroni brand of Amaretto cookies, please use that. I believe them to be the tasties, albeit pricier, option.I find them at World Market retail stores, though I imagine most gourmet shops worth their salt stock them.
Oh…and the messiest-free way I’ve found of crumbling these babies is to put them in a sturdy plastic freezer bag, seal it, and then tap them gently with a very heavy rolling pin. Mine is marble, so the blasted thing is heavy all right.
Dust them with 1 1/2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder.
If you find that the wax paper is shifting around a bit on you, wet the counter with a few drops of water and then place the wax paper on top. That should take care of that problem.
When the dough is rolled out, carefully peel the clear film from the top.
Then slide your hand underneath the wax paper, right in the middle of the circle.
Then carefully flip the wax paper with the rolled out dough over onto the filled pie crust. Equally carefully, remove the wax paper from the dough.
Center it and fold the excess edges underneath so that the crust then looks like this.
Don’t worry if you have small tears in the pastry. The heat and the butter will take care of that when the pie is baking.
Now, you’ll notice the crust is not exactly a looker. No worries. Just smush the spikes of a fork against the crust, like this,
and that bit of ugliness goes away and makes way for a cute little design. Like this…
Now poke the top of the crust with a fork several times and you’re all set to bake it according to instructions.
Makes 10 servings.