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My first month as a student in pastry school was spent getting acquainted with classic French tarts. I have very fond memories of those days; breaking in my first stiff chef's whites, practicing, over and over again, how to make pate brisée and sucrée, and working up a sweat whisking vats of pastry cream over a hot range. Of all the tarts that we made and tasted during this happy time, one, with its lightly spiced poached pears and fragrant almond filling, made a deep and lasting impression. These were flavors I've carried with me since.
Fast forward to last Thanksgiving, when I was baking so many apple pies to fulfill orders at the restaurant, I couldn't bear to look at another one for my family's own holiday table. Instead, I decided to combine my favorite French tart with America's favorite dessert: pie. The result was pear and frangipane on steroids, complete with a flaky, golden brown crust, and layers of pear baked into the almond filling. My relatives became just as smitten with my Americanized version of the French classic.
Pears are in season right now in the Northeast, and they're bright, juicy, and all-around amazing this year. You can make this recipe work with almost any type of pear, with the exception of Asian pears that contain too much water for poaching. My favorite varieties are Bosc, Bartlett, and Comice. When choosing pears, always pick fruit with smooth skin and firm flesh that gives only slightly with pressure. Avoid fruit that is bruised or cut. For poaching, pears that are overripe can lose their shape and dent, so try to find ones that are a bit under ripened.
To poach the pears, simply simmer them in a poaching liquid until until they are fork-tender and somewhat translucent. The pears will absorb flavor from the liquid, which gives you the opportunity to infuse them with your favorite spices and flavoring. Most poaching liquids are simply solutions of water, sugar, and spices, herbs, or zest. I prefer to add dry white wine to poaching liquid for pears, which lends some nice acidity. The poaching liquid fills the kitchen with wonderfully sweet and spicy aromas.