So many pears! This is the time of year when we pick pears, carry pears, polish pears, sort pears, pack pears, sell pears, dry pears, eat pears…. every single day. It’s a short season, though — just about a month, really — so by the time you’re feeling slightly tired of pears, it’s almost time to start missing them. And that, to me, is precisely the joy of seasonal eating: nothing gets old. And everything, every bite, is wonderful. Which brings me to today’s recipe.
As soon as the weather begins to cool ever so slightly, it’s time to make my favourite brandied pear bread pudding — simple and cozy and delicious, the kind of recipe where every ingredient shines in its own right. Needless to say, it starts with good ingredients: a dense, crusty loaf of country-style French bread, or a rich challah; perfectly ripe pears; whole milk and fresh eggs for the custard; and, if you are lucky enough to have some in your pantry, pear brandy. We’ll get to the recipe in a moment, but first, about that brandy….
We always get a kick out of bringing one of these pears-in-a-bottle to the farmer’s market and setting it somewhere on our table. It never fails to set people to talking — and to tossing around all kinds of wild speculations on just how that pear got in there. “Did you light a match in the bottle, like with an egg?” “I know, you put a pear seed inside!” Of course, the real explanation is quite simple…. any guesses?
Growing a pear in a bottle (shhhh, it’s a secret!) is amusing enough on its own, but the real fun starts when the pear is ripe, and you fill up the bottle with brandy. The sugars and flavour of the fruit infuse the alcohol; we let the bottles sit for a good 6 months before opening them. Pear brandy makes a lovely after-dinner drink, and it’s a sublime baking ingredient. You can make a just-as-good, if not quite so spectacular, version by setting a ripe pear in a mason jar and topping it off with brandy. For this recipe, you can use regular brandy if you don’t have pear brandy ready-made, or even omit the brandy altogether. It lends a subtle and compelling warmth to the pudding, and the smell as it bakes is absolutely divine. I highly recommend the leftovers (should there be any) for breakfast!
Julia’s B-H Ranch Pear Bread Pudding
• 6 to 8 Bartlett pears (I like a mixture of firm-ripe and soft-ripe)
• 8 to 10 slices firm country-style French bread or challah
• 1 3/4 c milk (I use whole milk)
• 3 large eggs, beaten
• 2/3 c sugar, or a little less if you like it less sweet
• 1/4 c pear brandy (see note above)
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• 1 tsp cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp nutmeg
• 1/4 c butter, melted and cooled a bit
• 1/4 c chopped walnuts (optional)
…and a deep 9″ square baking dish.
Preheat oven to 350°. Peel, core, quarter, and slice the pears into bite-size pieces. Slice the crusts off the bread and cut the bread into 1-inch cubes. Put the pears and bread into a large bowl and toss to mix.
Whisk milk, eggs, sugar, brandy, vanilla, and spices in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk in the butter. Pour this over the bread and pears in the other bowl, gently stir/fold to coat everything evenly, and let stand for 20-30 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed. Turn the mixture after 10 to 15 minutes, being careful not to over-mix; you want the bread pieces to remain as intact as possible.
Pile bread mixture into a buttered baking dish (it will be very full; press gently to make it all fit.) If you like, sprinkle chopped walnuts over the top. Bake in a water bath at 350° for about an hour, or until set. (Check with a toothpick or the point of a knife.)
(To make a water bath: set the baking dish inside a larger baking dish, making sure there is room on all sides. Set the nested dishes on the oven rack and carefully pour boiling water into the outside dish, so that it fills one-half to two-thirds of the way up the inner pudding dish. If you fill it too high, boiling water may splash into your pudding, so don’t get too close to the rim of the inner dish. See the photo below if any of that sounds confusing… and don’t skip this step, as the water bath will keep the custard from curdling as it bakes. )
You may need to tent the pudding with foil if it looks like it is browning too quickly — if so, remove the foil for the last 10 minutes or so of baking so the top gets nicely crisp. Serve with lightly-sweetened whipped cream (with an additional dash of pear brandy mixed in, if you like) or vanilla ice cream. Enjoy!