Food Failure No. 324: Why Do They Always Happen?

FAIL: Poached Pear Tart
FAIL: Poached Pear Tart

No, I’m not really keeping count, but sometimes I feel like some ghost consortium of departed award-winning chefs is checking off the three-hundreth failure mark along a list of my cooking (and food photo) attempts.

I could feel it when I once went chasing after my cat and left a pot of water boiling on the stove so long that the non-stick layer smoked and peeled right off. Felt it when I had to step away from a dish-in-progress to look up the word “julienne” while onions and garlic burned away in a skillet on the stove.

And I felt it again last weekend, when I thought for sure I could pull off a poached pear tart, almost straight out of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.

A few months before, I’d had my first little test with a poached pear after eating a delicious dessert at Seattle’s Le Pichet: a delicate little pear poached in white wine with a dollop of an airy cream sauce. We had gone to the restaurant as part of a book club excursion after reading “My Life in France,” a posthumously published autobiography about Julia Child’s introduction to the country, cuisine and cooking.

After a little trial and error, I got down a passable piece of poached fruit. There is not a whole lot to poached fruit except sugar, water, spices and maybe wine or liqueur. Which is how I got all confident about the poached pear tart.

The rest of the tart requires a sugar crust and a custard bed for the red-wine-poached pears and a currant jelly glaze. The original recipe calls for an almond custard, but since I was bringing the dessert to a friend who is allergic to almonds, I went for a more standard custard recipe offered on the previous page.

Well, it seems that everything I touched for that recipe started out wrong:

I got home late and started the pears a-poaching a little late and I undercooked them; I overworked the sugar crust so that when I layed it over the pan, the side edges just cut off when it hit the pan, and I decided that rather than re-roll and toughen it up, I’d just try to patch on the sides, which didn’t quite make it to the top for any kind of pretty edging; I got a phone call just as I turned off the timer on the crust and decided to let it brown for about a minute more and then promptly forgot it was in the oven; when I started the custard, I started beating the eggs before I realized I had forgotten to separate out the yolks and had to send my husband to the store to get more, and even then I didn’t thicken it up enough. And then I forgot to add the glaze. I made it, but it never made it out of the pot on my stove.

But I had said I’d bring dessert, and darn it, I was going to bring it, perfect or no. That’s one lesson Child frequently wrote about: Make a mistake, keep on going, and for goodness’ sake, don’t apologize. I’m still working on that last part because I can’t help but apologize after making people wait for a meal and then not present it perfect.

In the end, the tart was presented, slightly burned, partially tough crust with undercooked topping and all. And you know what? We ate it, it was sugary and if not perfect, definitely edible.

So maybe Julia Child is among that tsking cadre of top chefs, going in afterward, erasing those fail marks and whispering at me to keep cooking, to keep making mistakes and to keep learning.

And since it was mentioned, here’s the original recipe for poached pear tart from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking:”

Pate Sablee (Sugar Crust)
For a 9- to 10-inch tart shell

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plain bleached cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter,
cut into 16 pieces
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cold water, plus droplets
more water, if needed

Measure the flours, salt and butter into the container of a food processor and process about a minute, until the butter is thoroughly blended. Add and process in the sugar, then the egg yolk, vanilla and water. Continue processing for several seconds, until the dough masses. Turn it out onto your work surface, form into a rough ball, then push out 2-tablespoon bits with the heel of your hand in 6-inch smears. Gather together into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold and hard, at least 2 hours. (The dough will keep 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator.)

Tarte Aux Poires A La Bourdaloue

1 1/2 to 2 pounds firm, ripe, unblemished pears
2 cups cold water with 1 Tb lemon juice in a mixing bowl
2 cups red Bordeaux wine
2 Tb lemon juice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 stick or 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3-quart enamel saucepan
slotted spoon
Optional: candy thermometer
1/4 cup currant jelly in a small saucepan
wooden spoon
10-inch fully cooked sugar-crust shell
2 1/2 cups chilled frangipane (almond custard) with 2 Tb kirsch
Optional: 1/4 cup slivered almonds

Peel and halve pears. Neatly stem and core them with a grapefruit knife. Drop each half, as it is prepared, into the acidulated water to keep it from discoloring.

Bring the wine, lemon juice, sugar and cinnamon to boil in the saucepan. Drain the pears, and drop into the boiling syrup; bring liquid to just below the simmer for 8 to 10 minutes or until pears are ender when pierced with a knife. Do not overcook; they must hold their shape. Remove saucepan from heat and let pears cool in the syrup for 20 minutes. Drain the pears on a rack.

Rapidly boil down the syrup to the thread stage (230 degrees). Measure out 1/4 cup of the syrup and simmer it with the red currant jelly until jelly has dissolved and the syrup coats the spoon with a light glaze.

Paint the inside of the shell with a thin layer o the pear and jelly glaze.

Spread the frangipane in the pastry shell. Cut the pears into crosswise or lengthwise slices and arrange them over the custard.

Decorate with the optional almonds. Spoon a light coating of the glaze over the top of the tart.