Wine, fruit, sugar and spices simmered together in a pan. That’s pretty much all there is to this simple and yet sophisticated dish, which would not be out of place at the grandest of dinner parties. Although it is always referred to as pears poached in red wine, mulled wine would be a more accurate description of the poaching liquid. The aromas imparted by the wine as it is warmed will be sure to invoke remembrances of Christmas past in anyone who has ever raised a festive glass of mulled wine, Glühwein, or its Scandinavian counterpart Glögg. This recipe minus the pears could easily be used as the basis for a perfectly acceptable mulled wine without any alteration.
However good you want this dish to taste, however, don’t squander a decent bottle of red on it. The cheapest you can find will be more than adequate. Traditionally, bad or off wine was mulled to make it drinkable. Heating wine by itself cooks off most of the delicate aromatics that separate a fine wine from a commonplace bottle. Adding sugar and spices renders any remaining distinction between a Grand Vin de Bordeaux and two-buck-chuck as good as negligible. The wine’s job in this recipe is to provide a backdrop for the sweetness, spices and pears – nothing more, nothing less.
The choice of other ingredients, however, will make a difference. The slender-necked bosc (known as kaiser in Europe) and conference pear varieties will not only taste great but look fantastic on the plate. Bartlett (known as William in Britain), comice and anjou all make excellent choices in terms of texture and flavour, even if they lack the grace of the boscs and conferences.
The choice of spices is wide open. A broad range of spices are traditionally used in the mulling of wine, but cinnamon is pretty much a standard. Cinnamon is such a versatile spice because it complements a broad range of foods. It is most often associated with fruits and desserts, but also beautifully complements most meats, and is a key component in Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines. Because of its versatility, cinnamon commonly acts as an effective “flavour bridge” between other ingredients. For example, although pears and red wine may not seem naturally made for each other, the classic combination of pears and cinnamon works wonderfully, and cinnamon and red wine gives all those spicy mulled wine flavours. In other words, one ingredient unlocks two separate groups of flavours, the combination of which really make this dessert work.
Without further ado, here’s my basic recipe:-
2 cups red wine (nothing fancy!)
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup of sugar
2 strips orange peel
1 cinnamon stick
4 pears (preferably bosc or conference)
1. Add all ingredients except the pears to a non-reactive saucepan (see below) which is large enough to hold all the pears in one layer. Bring the contents to a simmer over a medium heat, stirring occasionally so that the sugar dissolves (note that if you served this mixture just before it started to simmer, you would have a basic mulled wine, “heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves“, just as Clarence would like it).
2. Once the pan is at a simmer, peel the pears and cut a flat surface on the bottom of each pear so they will stand up straight. Add the peeled pears to the liquid and simmer for 30 minutes, turning occasionally to cook all sides equally in the wine.
3. Remove the pan from the heat, and leave the pears to cool in the liquid.
4. Refrigerate the pears and liquid for at least two hours and preferably overnight as the flavours and colours will continue to infuse into the pears the longer you leave them, even over a period of a few days if desired.
5. When ready to serve, strain just the liquid into a pan. Boil for about 30 minutes until the liquid has a syrupy consistency (when it coats the back of a spoon) and remove from the heat.
6. Serve the pear standing in a pool of the reduced syrup (note: you probably won’t need all the syrup – save any leftovers for drizzling on ice cream or other suitable desserts).
Pears: Other fruits can be poached in the same way. I have seen recipes for peaches and apricots although, curiously enough, not apples, but I’m sure they would work well too.
Orange juice: If you want more of a straight wine taste, replace the orange juice with water or more wine. A little lemon can be added (juice, zest, or strips of rind) if you want to offset the sweet with a little tartness. Apple juice would be an interesting alternative, too.
- As far as spices go, consider adding peppercorns, cardamom, vanilla pods (or extract), allspice berries, fresh ginger or star anise. Try to use whole spices rather than ground versions, as these can then be strained off to leave a smooth syrup after the final reduction.
- Mint leaves, for example, could be used as a garnish.
- To serve with the pears, try a complementary flavour of ice cream such as cinnamon, pistachio or vanilla (preferably with real vanilla – look for the black seeds) drizzled with the syrup. Nuts of any sort would finish the dish off nicely. Any type of cream would be great, too, or perhaps mascarpone cheese. The idea of blue cheese with red wine and pears makes perfect sense to me, although I’m at a loss as to how to execute it. I’d be interested if anyone’s had such a combination and how it turned out…
I mentioned in the recipe that a non-reactive pan should be used. Metals such as aluminium, iron and copper are highly reactive in the presence of acids. This can lend a metallic flavour to food cooked in pans in which these metals come in direct contact with acidic foods or liquids, as well as leading to the ingestion of metals which, in large quantities, could have a health impact (copper is known to create havoc with various internal organs, while aluminium ingestion has been implicated as a potential risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease).
Highly acidic foods known to be particularly susceptible to such reactions include tomatoes, wine, citrus fruits, milk and eggs. Grey flecks in your eggs are a tell-tale sign of a reactive pan. Unfortunately, the most reactive metals are the best conductors of heat, doing a much better job than ‘safe’ materials such as stainless steel which can cause food to cook unevenly in the pan. In an attempt to get the best of both worlds, cast iron pans are often coated in enamel while copper and aluminium pans are clad with stainless steel. Aluminium can also be anodized to create a protective oxidised coating which is non-reactive and also has fairly good non-stick properties.
I was interested to find out from a very informative New York Times article on this subject that this reactivity is sometimes used by chefs to their advantage. When whipping egg whites in a copper bowl, for example, some of the copper ions freed from the surface of the bowl will bond with proteins in the egg whites. The resulting molecules are more stable than the proteins alone, and less prone to breaking down if overbeaten, which is why chefs have beaten egg whites in copper bowls for hundreds of years. It used to be common in years gone by for chefs to cook green vegetables in copper too for the lovely green colour imparted from the copper dissolved from the pans.
Although the US FDA reports that the quantities of metals dissolved from pans does not create long term health risks by itself, they do report that the dissolved copper can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. On the other hand, many people could do with more iron in their diet, so cooking with cast iron could be seen as providing a valuable dietary supplement!