Why It Works
- Repeatedly freezing and defrosting the pears effectively cryo-macerates the fruit in its own skin, resulting in a texture similar to traditional poached pears.
- The light syrup draws its rounded sweetness from rock sugar, goji berries, and aromatic dried flowers.
- Two types of Chinese almonds balance the dish with a hint of bitterness.
As farmers in Northeast China wrap up the final harvest of the winter pear season, excess pears are frozen so they can be enjoyed throughout the year. Of the fruit that’s harvested, the smaller, harder varieties are a little bitter and sour, qualities that make them less than ideal when eaten raw. But by using a process of freezing, thawing, and refreezing them whole, locals have found a method for extracting exceptional sweetness from the fruit that also produces a tender and juicy texture with minimal effort.
A pear that’s been frozen, thawed, and refrozen at least three times is a fruit with darkened skin and flesh that's perfectly sweet—no longer sour or bitter at all. What starts as a hard, underripe pear yields flesh that has the delicate texture of a canned peach—soft and yielding but still retaining a little bite—all thanks to the tenderizing effect of ice crystals forming and rupturing cells only to defrost and release all those cells' juicy contents.
In Northeast China, the tradition is to let the pear thaw in cold water until a crust of ice forms on the outside. Most people then shatter the layer of ice, bite a small hole into the leathery skin of the fruit, and squeeze and suck out as much of the fruit’s nectar as they can, before finally sinking their teeth into what's left of the pear itself.
While that’s certainly the most visceral and straightforward way of enjoying a frozen pear, this recipe uses the same freezing and thawing technique to mimic a traditional Chinese poached pear dish that's often served as a dessert. In a sense, the freeze-thawing technique "cryo-poaches" the pears, producing a wonderfully soft and juicy texture that's reminiscent of a poached pear while maintaining the uncooked fruit's bright and fresh flavor.
Sweet dessert soups are common in many parts of East Asia and many of them draw on multiple sources of sweetness to build a more complex flavor profile. In this recipe, I do that by creating a light syrup infused with the natural sweetness of goji berries, fragrant sweet osmanthus flowers or mildly buttery chrysanthemum, and rock sugar, all balanced by the bitterness of two types of Chinese almonds.
Like most Chinese desserts, this dish is subtle. It can be served as a refreshing end to a heavier meal or even as an elegant palate cleanser before dessert proper.
- 2 medium Asian pears, about 10 1/2 ounces (300g) each
- 2 tablespoons whole dried goji berries
- 2 tablespoons (16g) Chinese Southern almonds (see note)
- 2 tablespoons (16g) Chinese Northern almonds (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (36g) yellow lump rock sugar (roughly one 1 1/2-inch lump), plus more if needed
- 1 tablespoon dried sweet osmanthus or chrysanthemum
Wash Asian pears well, getting rid of any dirt or debris on the surface of the fruit.
Seal the Asian pears in a zipper-lock bag, then place in freezer until frozen solid, at least 3 hours. Remove pears from freezer and allow to thaw completely at room temperature, about 3 hours. Repeat this process until the pears' skins have darkened and pears feel tender within their skins, at least 2 more times although more rounds may be required for larger fruits.
Place the frozen pears in a large bowl and cover with cold water to thaw for a final time.
In a small bowl, cover the goji berries, southern almonds, and northern almonds with cold water and let soak for 15 minutes, then drain.
In a small saucepan, combine rock sugar, osmanthus or chrysanthemum flowers, and 1 1/2 cups (355g) water. Set over medium heat and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar, about 1 minute. Remove syrup from heat and let steep for 10 minutes.
Strain the syrup and discard the flowers. Return syrup to the pot along with the goji berries, southern almonds, and northern almonds. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer until the goji berries are entirely softened, about 10 minutes. Adjust sweetness with additional rock sugar, if necessary. Set aside to cool, then transfer to a container and refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour.
Once the pears are fully thawed, set a small cutting board inside a rimmed baking sheet to contain juices. Cut pears into quarters, then slice off any core from each quarter. Carefully slice flesh from skin and discard skin.
Cut each quarter lengthwise into thin slices, then serve cold in a shallow bowl, spooning the syrup, goji berries, and almonds on top.
Goji berries, Chinese almonds, rock sugar, dried osmanthus, and dried chrysanthemum can all be found at well-stocked Chinese markets. Note that packages of Chinese almonds are often not labeled with enough detail in English to help identify Northern versus Southern almonds, but the two types are almost always sold near each other, and can be distinguished by their size, with Southern almonds being larger than Northern ones. Northern almonds are only consumed cooked, as they contain cyanide and are mildly toxic.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The pears can be stored in a sealed bag or container in the freezer for up to 9 months, during any stage of the freezing and thawing process.
The syrup can be made up to 1 week in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to use.