Just last week, I made the personal acquaintance of a cactus pear. Actually, several of them. They were purplish, slightly soft, and a wee bit spiky. I had no choice but to get to know these cactus pears, because they were one component (out of seven different components) that I was forced to confront as part of the "practical final" in my most recently concluded pastry arts class, Plated Desserts II. This final, which I'd been dreading for weeks if not years (undoubtedly since I first heard about it shortly after starting culinary school, ages ago, and witnessed the terror it invariably invoked in the advanced pastry students), required me and my classmates to create a visually striking and tasty dessert within just a couple of hours from start to finish. Not so difficult, you say? Well, consider the fact that a bona fide plated dessert--composed of various textures, temperatures, colors, and flavor types--typically consists of several individual recipes, and the need to combine all the mysterious ingredients into one coherent and comely dessert in that period of time is actually a rather tall order.
The other six ingredients we had to make use of besides cactus pears were unblanched brazil nuts, unpopped popcorn, quinces, cardamom pods, brick dough (also known as feuilles de brick, this is kind of like a tougher and more transparent version of phyllo dough), and coconut sugar.
The fact that I completely forgot to photograph my dessert, once finished, helps illustrate how frazzled I must have been by the time I presented my finished plate to my teacher, a fellow we'll simply refer to here as Chef R. It was not what my husband would describe as "a triumph"--a phrase he often likes to use in reference to especially well-prepared and delicious food. No, it was a partial success and that's all it was. The part of it that was a complete success, was the sorbet portion. That sorbet, which was somewhat similar to today's recipe, was brilliantly pink and made a dramatic impression on the plate. It was zesty, sweet, and tart. It was positively psychedelic.
There was also a cactus pear sauce, equally vivid, neatly dabbed onto the plate like a tiny path, that served as a dividing line between the dessert's two main components. To the left was a perfectly egg-shaped scoop of sorbet (also known as a quenelle), with a delicate golden tuile balanced on top. The sorbet sat on a circle of crumbly streusel that I'd made from a ground combo of toasted brazil-nut brittle and popped, salted popcorn. That sorbet and tuile construction was parked near my attempt at a warm, spicy, stewed quince concoction enclosed within a crisp, baked, brick-dough basket. A cute basket, no doubt, but with sticky, sugary contents that were barely edible. Really. I joke you not. Something went terribly wrong with my stewed quince. The whole thing became gritty and grainy and wasn't at all becoming. And the cardamom in there seemed overwhelming . . . too much cardamom. As I brought my plated creation up to Chef R. at the appointed hour so he could render judgement, I knew I was a girl with a problem.
Chef R. was not impressed with the right side of the plate. Alas.
But, he did say he really liked the sorbet and thought the whole concept, at least in terms of looks, was attractive and appealing. Overall, it could have been worse. I suppose I was just glad all those weeks/months/years of anxious anticipation were over. I'd completed Plated Desserts II and, really, that was reward enough.
It was a tiny consolation, to be honest, that the other members of the class seemed to have a less than complete triumph as well. We all felt, though, that we tried the best we could given the limitations we were forced to work with. And Chef R. was only encouraging in his closing comments to us, as we gathered up our belongings and prepared to offer our fatigued goodbyes. Before we left the room he urged us to keep taking baking/pastry classes even after we complete the formal requirements of the program (I have one more class to go). Because, after all, there is always more to learn. Indeed.
Cactus-Pear and Cherry Sorbet
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)
1 pound sweet cherries
12 ounces simple syrup, cooled
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons cherry (or other fruit-flavored) liqueur (I used Heering cherry liqueur; you could use Kirschwasser, or Chambord, or even Limoncello would probably be good.)
Cut the cactus pears in half, lengthwise, and scoop out the pulp with a large spoon. (Be careful; the outside of a cactus pear may have tiny spines left on it that you can't really see.)
Pit the cherries and cut them in half.
Put the pulp and the cherry pieces into a deep straight-sided container and blend them with an immersion blender until no large chunks remain. Strain the mixture into a medium size bowl. Rinse out the deep straight-sided container. Pour the mixture back into it, along with all of the simple syrup.
Blend the mixture again until all lumps are gone and it looks smooth. Strain the mixture again into a bowl, this time with a fine mesh strainer. You're trying to catch any seeds from the cactus pears; they are very hard and black.
Stir the smaller amount of lime juice, along with the liqueur, into the strained sorbet mix. Taste the mix, and add more lime juice if you prefer. Don't add more liqueur; too much alcohol will make it difficult for the sorbet to firm up in the freezer.
Chill the sorbet mix until extremely cold and churn it in your ice cream freezer according to the manufacturer's directions.
Put the churned sorbet into a chilled container that can be tightly covered and freeze it for at least several hours. I froze mine for over a day before serving it; it needs time to get really firm, and for the flavors to ripen.
Serve in small portions. Nice as a very light dessert, or as a palate cleanser between courses.
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