Baked Marsala Pears
Because it’s one of my common pantry items, shortly after I’d moved to Paris, I went to the supermarket to get Marsala, to stock my larder. Much to my surprise, the supermarket didn’t have it. So I went to another, then another. Then another. Then I went to some liquor stores, where I thought for sure it would be on the shelf, but no one had ever heard of it. They kept trying to sell me Madeira, which is kind of like comparing Champagne to crémant. Both can appear to be similar, but are world’s apart – although I like them both.
I was pretty perplexed because Marsala is something that is sold in almost any American grocery store and since we shared a border with our Italian neighbors, I figured it’d be something easy to find here in France. (Perhaps because of the prevalence of Chicken Marsala in the U.S., one of those sure-fire dishes that has become so popular in red-checkered tableclothed Italian-American restaurants, and with home cooks?)
Marsala is made in Sicily, in the city of Marsala. It’s a naturally sweet, fortified wine with woody, subtle molasses-like flavors, which come from being aged in oak casks. Interestingly, Marsala is a wine perpetuo (perpetual), meaning that as wine is taken out of the casks, more is added. So the wine goes through a natural oxidation process. (You can read more about it here and here.)
Marsala lends sweets a unique Italian flavor. I’ve plumped raisins in it to add them to biscotti, and it’s the classic wine to use when whisking up a batch of zabaglione, that dreamy, warm, foamy sauce that is often spooned over fresh strawberries, and is one of the best things you’ll ever eat. So although I was Marsala-less for a while, a hat-tip from some locals told me to check in one of the many Italian épiceries (specialty food shops) around Paris, of which there are many. And lo and behold, on the shelves were bottles of Marsala, ripe ‘n ready to use.
The woodsy flavor of Marsala also goes very well with pears. I picked up some Conference pears, the French version of Boscs, and after admiring them for a few days as they ripened – pears ripen better once picked from the tree – once they were ripe ‘n ready, I doused them with Marsala, sugar, and a bit of honey, then baked them for about an hour, basting them with the wine syrup as it reduced to a sweet stickiness.
Once done, as they cool a bit, the pears wrinkle a bit near the stem end, indicating that they’ve concentrated not just in size, but in flavor as well. The pears are actually better served not too hot from the oven, after they’d had a moment to relax and reflect on their time in the oven.
Ice cream, of course, is a great accompaniment when serving them for dessert, or a dollop of crème fraîche. I could also imagine them served with roasted meat as they’re not overly sweet, since the Marsala adds a bit of a roasty, savory quality to the baked pears.
On another note, last week was a very sober week in France, and around the world. Many of you left comments and well wishes on social media streams, and your concerns and thoughts were appreciated. I had planned to go to the march on Sunday and share some images and thoughts with readers, but there were so many people, it was a challenge just to move a half-block down the sidewalk during the momentous event. So I didn’t post anything, but participated and took the time for some personal introspection, along with the people of France. Thanks, David