Seckel pears are diminutive, with muddy, olive green skin and a firm texture. Their tiny proportions make them impossible to resist, and the perfect size for a light dessert after a rich meal. They ripen toward the end of September, so be on the lookout as the season is short. Pears are poached in a light caramel syrup – you can determine how dark you’d like to burn the sugar. I prefer mine deeply amber, imparting an almost burnt quality to the fruit. Of course, you can also infuse the syrup with any number of aromatics. Here, we use vanilla, but lavender buds, fresh thyme or even a bag of your favorite tea. When you crack open the jars, the pears’ exterior will have a gorgeous caramel hue, whereas the centers stay creamy. I like to serve the pears whole, with a dollop of cream and a drizzle of the syrup. Make sure to use wide-mouth pint jars here, so the pears fit without bruising.
Caramel Vanilla Seckel Pears
makes 6-8 pints | start to finish: about 1 hour active time
2 1/4 cups sugar
5 1/2 cups warm water
1 vanilla bean, cut in half, beans scraped and reserved
5 pounds Seckel pears
In a large, completely dry, saucepan, add the sugar and shake the pan gently to level it out. Place the saucepan over medium heat. Without touching it, leave the sugar to melt and brown; do not stir it. The sugar will begin to brown at the edges. Once starting to brown, gently swirl the pan slightly, making sure to keep the sugar level, so it does not coat the sides of the pan. The sugar will caramelize, becoming dark brown at edges. Stir the melted sugar slowly, incorporating the dry sugar, until all of the sugar is melted and amber colored. Wearing an oven mitt and long sleeves (molten sugar will spit and pop) carefully pour in the warm water while simultaneously stirring. Any sugar crystals that form will melt in the water. Add the vanilla bean pods and the reserved seeds, and set the pot aside. (This is also when you when add other aromatics, as pictured below.**)
Peel the pears, leaving a small piece of the stem intact. Immediately drop them into the syrup. When all of the pears have been added, return the pot to medium-high heat. Bring the syrup to a low boil and then reduce the heat to medium. Cook the pears for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are just beginning to soften, but are not cooked through all the way. The exterior flesh will be easily pierced, but the core of the pear will be firm.
Remove the pears from the heat and, using a soup spoon, immediately add them to the clean jars, lowering each pear in gently to prevent bruising. Pack the jars as densely as you’re able, leaving 1” of space. Once the jars are packed, pour the caramel-vanilla syrup over the pears so they are submerged, leaving 1/2” of headspace in the jars. Cut the vanilla pod into even pieces and add a small piece of it to each jar. Gently tap the jars on the counter to release any air bubbles. Wipe the jar rims and seal the jars. Place the jarred pears in a prepared water bath and process for 20 minutes. Remove the jars with tongs and let them cool on the counter overnight. Store in a cool, dark cupboard for up to 1 year.
washed jars • water bath
**You can infuse the caramel water with many an array of aromatics. Try fresh thyme, lavender, ginger, cardamom, cloves, etc. I always recommend doing a small batch on the side first, so you can judge the potency and see if you like the flavor. From there, add aromatics to the pot and steep as you like. As I tell all of my students, the potency of the flavor will grow in strength over time, so keep it a little softer then you’d ideally like. A little clove goes a long way – trust me.