Of course it was too early for all
that; still weeks till the autumnal equinox when for a moment the world
rights itself on its axis and the stars align for the harvest season.
Yet images of coziness stayed in my mind, and through all the warm September
days I wished for one cool enough to inspire baking or making a soup.
My wish was finally granted - a cool windy day, almost October, when
a friend brought a bag of seckle pears from the tree in his yard and
told me the story of his alternate harvest ñ last year his tree
produced six tiny pears, hard and green.
This year he can't give them
away fast enough. Bushels of pears, still petite - just two or three
inches tall - but golden and green with a blush on their sunsides like
the cheeks of children on a day at the beach. I ate one right away,
just four bites of creamy flesh; smooth and crisp and sweet with spicy
granules of pure autumn flavor. It was hard to stop at one, but I forced
myself to refrain from gobbling them all up as I imagined presenting
a lovely pear concoction to my favorite colleague, who would be sharing
our dinner table in a couple of days.
I rifled through dessert recipes
in my mind, planning my little party and plotting the fate of my pears.
And the rest of those cute little seckles ripened in a green earthenware
bowl, just waiting to become a crisp or a crumble. They proved themselves
irresistible as snacks however, and as we walked by, my honey and I,
we would surreptitiously grab one for a snack - just one - after all,
one tiny pear would never be missed at all. By the day of our dinner
party, most of the pears had gone missing. There were only three left
and we had no dessert. Certainly not enough for crumble or cobbler or
fool, and poaching three little pears would have been much too minimalist
for my abundant autumn cravings. And on principle, I couldn't supplement
these minuscule jewels with store bought pears. But a tiny tart? Three
pears and some pastry? It might just work.
Inspired by a slight chill and the
spice of wood smoke in the air, I lit the oven and pulled a round of
my favorite butter pastry out of the freezer. I hunted through my cupboard
to find ingredients that would stretch and enhance my precious pears
- crystallized ginger - yes! And some almonds and oats and a handful
of dried cranberries. Sugar, lemon, butter -how bad could it be? I whizzed
all that in the food processor with a little flour to make a marzipan-like
paste, flecked pink with cranberry bits. I rolled out the dough in a
rough circle and sprinkled it with sugar and flour to thicken the juices,
and I sliced the pears in half lengthwise and zipped out the stems and
stringy centers. Happily inventing as I went along, I used a melon scoop
to neatly remove the cores, leaving a smooth round cavity into which
I stuffed my ginger-almond paste, licking the sticky sweetness from
my fingers every chance I got. I laid the six pear halves cut side down
on the pastry in a sunburst pattern because it reminded me of the huge
sunflowers nodding in a big vase on my table, and because it made them
look more abundant. I mounded what was left of the almond paste in the
center of the tart and slashed the skin of the pears a couple of times
to vent steam and let the flavorful toppings sink in. I sprinkled the
whole thing with more sugar, dotted it with butter and rolled the crust
up around the sides (which made a lovely scalloped shape when I pushed
in the bits of dough between the pears). I finished it off with another
scattering of chopped candied ginger and admired my work.
As I slid the tart into the oven,
I prayed to the kitchen gods for success. But the rustic roundness of
the tart and the sparkle of ginger bits told me that asking for success
was superfluous and a prayer of gratitude would be required in its place.
A thankful nod to the universe for my three pears, for the imagination
and ingredients to make them worthy my guests, and most of all, for
the pair of friends with whom I would share my lovely tart, gilded with
a dollop of vanilla whipped cream, as we imagined our menus for the
harvest and the holidays.