Fine, let’s get this over with. Good food, even great eating, is possible from boxes, cans and other ready-made items found in any convenience store. Despite this blog preparing all manner of edibles from scratch, today brings something others started, at least in part. This shows, apparently, even the most promising ideas may begin with, “First, open a can of…”
Just what has won such an admission? A dessert, naturally. Perhaps sugar sweetened a stern resistance. Anyway, the winner is Baked Pear Crunch with Lemon Sauce. The recipe appears in a familiar source, James Porterfield’s Dining by Rail, and presents a favorite treat chefs aboard the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad offered travelers in its dining cars.
Stocking the pantry’s shelves with prepared items was absolutely necessary for passenger rail cooks, who had to create dishes to order, often days, or even weeks, away from the market. Ingenuity was key, including relying on portable ingredients such as these, which were used in the dessert you sample (so to speak) today:
Despite their common origins, these items create sublimity, thanks to the skills of chefs on the Chicago and Pacific line. In addition, cinnamon works magic, and is used thricely, to season the pears, to flavor the crunchy topping, and to spike the sweet lemon sauce which surrounds the pear crunch. Oh, and there’s lots of butter. That never hurts.
The creation resembles apple crisp, though this is a bit lighter and is a more ethereal adaptation than is the former, no doubt due to the cinnamon. There’s a nice contrast in textures too, as the corn flakes give the topping a buttery and sweet crunch, introducing the warm, soft pears beneath. Finally, the surrounding sauce weaves a mildly tart note around the pears’ sweetness.
Delighting in such a dessert while gliding swiftly through the night may be a pleasure only past generations enjoyed, yet Chicago and Pacific chefs’ creativity is preserved forever in Dining by Rail, allowing us to share the experience, albeit while stationary. And it all started with two cans and a box.
Baked Pear Crunch with Lemon Sauce (*1)
For the lemon sauce:
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon corn starch
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind, plus juice from 1 lemon (*2)
- 1 tablespoon butter
For the pear crunch:
- 1 tablespoon corn starch
- 4 cups sugar, divided
- 1 cup pear juice
- 4 (16-ounce) cans of pears
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon, divided
- 9 cups corn flakes
- 1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, melted
First, open a can of… Well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start by making the lemon sauce. Take a medium mixing bowl and add an egg yolk, beating it slightly. Set aside bowl. Pour into a small saucepan the cold water, and add the sugar, corn starch and cinnamon. Stir until the ingredients are combined.
Place the saucepan over a medium-low flame and, stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a low boil. Cook thusly for five minutes, until the mixture thickens and clarifies. Still stirring constantly, add the lemon zest and juice.
Place a whisk in the bowl containing the egg yolk. Slowly pour in the hot saucepan mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the egg from setting. Pour the contents back into the saucepan and turn the flame to its lowest setting. Add the butter and stir it in until melted, then remove from flame and set aside sauce.
Now, move on to making the pear crunch. In a small saucepan, combine the corn starch and a cup of sugar. Pour in the pear juice and set the pan over a medium flame. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Continue stirring until the sauce thickens, about five minutes. Reduce flame to its lowest setting, stirring pear glaze occasionally.
Meanwhile, pour the pears, including their syrup, into a large saucepan. Stir in the salt and half a teaspoon of the cinnamon. Place over a medium flame and stir occasionally, until well heated, about three minutes. Add the pear glaze from the small saucepan, and add two cups of sugar. Stir occasionally (and gently, as not to break up the pears) until the sugar dissolves, about three minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, place the pears in an even layer on the bottom of an ungreased 9×13″ baking dish. Pour in enough nectar from the large saucepan to a depth of an inch. Discard the rest of the nectar.
Pre-heat the oven to 350°. Crush the corn flakes and mix them well with the remaining half-teaspoon of cinnamon and cup of sugar. Pour contents into a medium bowl and stir in the melted butter, until mixture is of uniform moistness. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the pears in the baking tray.
Bake for about twenty minutes, until the topping is golden brown. To serve, fill the bottom of individual bowls or dessert dishes with about half an inch of the lemon sauce. Top with a good portion of the pear crunch. Take care to put the crunch atop the sauce (instead if vice-versa), as this will keep the topping crunchy.
1 – The recipe below makes a large dish. That’s fine if you’re a rail cook preparing dessert serving a train full of passengers, but it’s a bit much for the home cook. I cut the recipe in half, and used an 8×8″ baking pan. This still produced four generous servings.
2 – Use a Meyer lemon if it’s available. The taste is superb, and its mildly sweet tartness, and bright color, speak of the fruit’s origin as a hybrid between a lemon and a tangerine.