Pears have never been my favorite fruit. I've never disliked them, they've just never thrilled me. I probably just knew too much about them to find them appetizing.
You see, when I was growing up, we had a pear tree in our backyard. Not only that, but my grandparents, who lived a few miles away, had two more of them. In my present canning-crazy state, I keep fantasizing about how wonderful it would be to have a fruit tree in the yard, with piles of free fruit to can and preserve every year. I have to keep reminding myself that I have had a fruit tree, and that parts of it really sucked.
My ambivalence to pears comes from having seen them in every possible state of decay. Picking up the fallen pears was a task that generally fell to me and my brother (often with a monetary reward per pear we collected - as my mom recently pointed out to me, she had to pick up pears through her whole childhood as well and was sick of it by the time we came along). It meant braving the swarms of yellow jackets to pick up gooey, bug-ridden fruit and hurl it into garbage cans (to which the swarms of yellow jackets quickly moved). I did not enjoy this. When I smell a pear today, while I can appreciate the floral juiciness, it also reminds me of that familiar too-sweet smell of fruit decay.
I guess I remember the icky parts so well because there weren't many good parts to compensate for them. Picking pears was fun, on those occasions when the squirrels left them in the trees long enough to ripen. Once, in a particularly productive year, my brother and I had a pear stand in front of our house. That was cool, too. But eating them was too much of a chore to be fun. One of my grandparents' trees began to fruit in mid-August. A few weeks later, our tree was ripe, as was their second one. From that point, it was a pear-eating marathon. You know how pears ripen - one minute they're hard as rocks and then the next they're sitting in a pool of their own juices snickering at you. Imagine whole baskets of pears doing this at once. Since my family didn't can, there wasn't any good way to get rid of them, other than the ubiquitous pear pies (and back then I didn't like fruit pies at all). Pear season was more of an ordeal than a pleasure, most of the time.
Fast forward to today. My parents' pear tree is gone - my brother and I cut it down six or seven years ago. Its production had really dipped - the squirrels had been getting most of the pears for some years - and the trunk had begun to rot. A few years later, my grandparents' big tree was also cut down. For the most part, I forgot about the pears, since I don't live near enough to have them unloaded on me. But last week, I visited Grandma (who is recovering from a broken hip and has finally moved back home) and the surviving pear tree - the early one - was in full swing. I came home with sixteen pounds of pears and a new appreciation for them. Now that I'm canning, the idea of a vast supply of free fruit is thrilling once again (and I guess I've had nearly a decade to get over the pear glut of my childhood).
A few days later, Jeff and I made a batch of pear sauce. I had planned to use nine pounds of my pears for this, and perhaps another few pounds for some jam. The pears did not sign on to these plans. I washed them and separated them into two piles: rotting and hard as rocks. I decided to cut up the ones that were most ripe, discarding the ugly bits, and see how much I had to work with. Somehow, many of the pears were rotten from the inside (rotten to the core?), leaving very little usable material. I ended up with three pounds of chopped pears to make into sauce, returning seven or eight pounds of unripe ones to the back room for another day. (I had planned to blog about the pear sauce, but the process was long, annoying and fraught with difficulty - not because sauce is hard to make, but because of the pears themselves and our cheap food mill which keeps falling apart during use.)
Somehow, despite these memories and setbacks, I still haven't abandoned my dream of a fruit tree. I know parts of it suck, but the idea of free fruit, in whatever state, hasn't ceased to be alluring. Despite the difficulties the pears are giving me, I keep wondering if there will be more for me to take when I visit later this week. And maybe I'm being a bit dramatic in saying that pear season was an "ordeal." As a kid, it was just part of my routine (I'm serious about disliking picking them up, though - it was pretty gross). I keep looking at that pile of pears in my back room and seeing the possibilities. Yes, it's possible that half of them will turn out to be rotten inside like the others, but maybe they won't. And if they're not, think of all the tasty things I can make with this free fruit . . . like this pear bread.
I've delayed this post so long that I'm already on my second batch of pear bread (and sauce, too - the second batch came out much better). I played with the original recipe a bit, to fit my materials better. The original called for grating the pears, but I've had to cut so many rotten spots out of these I didn't want to risk it. Instead, I used regular chunks of pears. Also, I used canola oil rather than butter or olive oil (which I was out of). That cuts the saturated fat down in the recipe. While I'm not a huge fan of canola oil in baking (it can make a batch of brownies unappealingly gooey - not mmm gooey but sticks-to-everything gooey). In this case, though, it worked nicely. The bread forms a crispy outer crust while the insides stay soft and moist. I just hope it freezes well!
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen.
3 c flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger (optional)
1 c chopped pecans
3/4 c canola oil
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 c sugar
3-5 pears (the number of pears will depend on the pears' size and how much usable flesh is available after peeling - in my first batch, I used all five pears that appear in the picture)
2 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350. Spray loaf pans with cooking spray (the recipe says this fills one 10" tube pan or two regular loaf pans. I made eight mini-loaves and had enough batter left over for six muffins).
In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. Remove 1/4 c of the flour mixture to a small bowl and toss the nuts in it.
In another bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs, sugar and vanilla. Peel, core and slice the pears into 1" chunks, tossing each chunk into the wet mixture as you cut it (I found this kept the pears from browning, which they surely would have done if I'd chopped them before preparing the rest of the recipe, since I'm a slowpoke in the kitchen). When the pears are all added, add the nuts to the wet mixture and stir to combine.
Pour the wet mixture over the dry mixture and stir until everything is just moistened.
Pour into prepared pans and bake 30 minutes (for muffins and mini-loaves) or 55-60 minutes (for full loaves) or possibly longer (for a tube pan). Cool on a wire rack (or your stove top) for ten minutes, then remove the breads from the pans to finish cooling (mine seemed a bit sticky at first, but every one came out cleanly with a little prodding).