Cooking by Imagination... Or, How I Turned An Appetizer Into Dessert

The recipe seemed to just appear in my head one evening a few months ago. I was visiting some friends and we were hanging around in the kitchen, doing what we love most: a little chopping here, a little sautéing there until something that might be called dinner ends up on the table. Someone showed up with a bag full of ripe pears and before I knew it, I was pulling a caramelized pear tart from the oven.

But really, I didn't do this alone. Read on for how it all came together.

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The inspiration was actually a mosaic of many things arising together at the right time. In this case it was a simple equation of memory and ingredients: Memory(Nigella Lawson's Gorgonzola Pear Appetizer video clip + beautiful photo of a tart in David Tanis' A Platter of Figs) x Ingredients(the pears + puff pastry from the freezer) = a really amazing dessert.

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First, the ingredients. The pears fell into place immediately--they were quite ripe and needed to be used that night. Puff pastry from the freezer, like frozen peas, canned chick peas and coconut milk, should always be kept on hand, for exactly the reason this story relates: it will save your butt. Often.

Butter, honey and sherry are also classic staples. The rosemary grows in hedges around here but could easily have been be thyme or marjoram in the summer, or skipped completely.

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The inspiration was the memory of watching Nigella Lawson make this fantastic looking appetizer of caramelized pears and walnuts served with a big wedge ('generous wodge') of gorgonzola. I've said it here before: if you want to cook, it helps to be a little obsessed with all things culinary. Even Nigella Lawson clips on YouTube. David Tanis' A Platter of Figs is a beautiful homage to simple cooking. I want to live inside this book.

I'm sharing this experience with you because I firmly believe that we are all capable of culinary invention. I hope this inspires you to imagine, invent and experiment in your kitchen. And to always remember that you never know what inspiration equation might be just about to come together, so keep those YouTube clips bookmarked!

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Caramelized Pear Tart
Serves 6

Remove a sheet of puff pastry from the freezer and place on a parchment or foil lined baking sheet. Preheat oven to 400.

Take four fairly ripe pears, cut them in half, scoop out the core and slice into thick wedges. (Nigella didn't core her pears but I didn't want to make my friends pull pear seeds out of their mouths.) Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large flat-bottomed frying pan over medium-high heat. When the butter foams, add the pears, arranging them so one of their cut sides are facing down. Cook until pears start to brown, then flip to brown the other side.

Meanwhile, if the puff pastry is soft enough, score a 1/4 inch border around the whole sheet. If your kitchen is hot and the pastry is getting too warm, place it in the refrigerator to firm up.

When the pears start to color on their second side, add the walnuts, 1/2 cup of Marsala or Sherry and about 1/4 cup of honey. Keep the heat medium high and gently toss the pears and walnuts and scrape the pan to deglaze. When the liquids start to thicken, turn down the heat and using tongs, carefully remove the pears to the puff pastry sheet, being cautious of the hot liquid.

Keep the pan on the heat and stir until the liquids have reduced to a syrup and the walnuts begin to caramelize. Pour over tart and place tart in oven. Bake about 20 minutes, or until the pastry is browned and puffed around the edges.

Remove from oven, let cool slightly and carefully, using a spatula, place on a serving platter.

As a nod to the savory gorgonzola that was in the original dish, I very finely chopped one generous teaspoon of fresh rosemary and sprinkled it over the tart. Serve as is, or with a scoop of honey ice cream.

It's occurred to me recently that you could treat this recipe like a tart tartin by leaving everything in the pan (be sure its oven-proof) and simply drape the puff pastry over the pears and walnuts, carefully tucking it in on the sides to create a rim. Place the whole thing in the oven and bake as directed. Remove from the oven and VERY CAREFULLY invert onto a platter. I haven't tried this yet, but my imagination tells me it's worth a shot.

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Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.

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