In my family an assortment of homemade cookies was the traditional dessert for Christmas. My sister Meg's birthday is December 25 so she rarely celebrated with a birthday cake. I remember one year my mom did make her a cake and it felt unnatural to be eating cake instead of cookies on Christmas.
Once I moved away from home after college, I started a new tradition when I began to make Linzer Torte for Christmas Eve, which was father's birthday. It was spicy and wintry and yet still not a cake. Then I made a dozen plum puddings for quite a few years. They were a labor of love but I don't have enough friends who like this dessert as much as I do so it fell out of my repertoire.
But winter always seems like the time of year for fancy desserts. I make these roasted pears with candied hazelnuts and a nutty Frangelico sauce every few years because it's fairly easy, tastes good and is very dramatic visually. The recipe came from the November 1997 issue of Gourmet Magazine as the finishing touch on "A Pacific Northwest Thanksgiving."
Though it would be a lovely ending to a holiday dinner, it would work with any winter meal or just invite a few neighbors over for dessert and coffee and wow 'em with this.
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WITH HAZELNUT SYRUP & CANDIED HAZELNUTS
1 cup water
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup hazelnuts
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 firm-ripe Bosc pears (about 2 1/4 pounds total, one pear per person), stems intact
3 tablespoons hazelnut-flavored liqueur like Frangelico
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350° F and lightly butter a shallow baking pan.
Coarsely chop hazelnuts. Stir nuts into syrup and simmer 1 minute. With a slotted spoon transfer nuts to baking pan, arranging in one layer, and reserve syrup. Cut butter into pieces. Bake nuts in middle of oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Immediately add butter to nuts, tossing to coat and separate, and with a spatula transfer nuts to a plate to cool Nuts will crisp as they cool. (Nuts may be candied 2 days ahead and kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Reserved syrup may be kept, covered and chilled, 2 days.)
Lightly butter a shallow ovenproof kettle or casserole dish (about 12 by 2 1/2 inches). With a sharp knife trim a very thin slice from bottom of each pear to enable pears to stand upright. Dip and roll each pear in reserved syrup to coat completely. Transfer pears as coated to kettle, standing them upright, and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Add liqueur, lemon juice, and vanilla to remaining reserved syrup and pour down side of kettle or casserole.
Roast pears, uncovered, in middle of oven until undersides are tender when pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes.
Arrange pears on a serving platter. Spoon syrup around pears and sprinkle with candied nuts. Serve pears warm or at room temperature.
Note: I think the hardest part of this recipe is figuring out if the pears are ripe enough when they are still firm. The photo shows my version of the dessert so you can see what a pretty presentation it makes.