I was flipping through a cookbook recently—I can't for the life of me remember where—and saw a recipe for figs baked with bay leaves and black pepper. What a good concept for a preserve, I thought.
That inspiration yielded this recipe for sliced pears in syrup. I decided to pair the slight astringency of bay leaves, which I collected on my road trip through Big Sur, with the rounded sweetness of honey and then balance the sweet (and add the necessary acid preservative) with white wine vinegar.
The only question was what to call the preserve. Traditionally when you add vinegar to fruits in syrup—it's not an unusual thing to do—you'd call it "pickled," but "pickled pears" didn't sound right to me. The syrup, after all, is sweet as well as sour—although I wouldn't call it "sweet & sour pears," either, because that makes me think of bad take-out food. Finally I settled on "piquant."
You should consider this a recipe-in-development since it's the first time I've tried it. As so often, I've relied on Linda Ziedrich: her recipe for Pickled Pears provided all the essential proportions, such as how much vinegar to insure safe canning, etc. The amount of aromatics is improvised, and perhaps will need to be refined a bit, but this is a good start. Also, I was working with 2.5 pounds of pears because that's what I had on the counter and so I was left with extra syrup. You could probably put up as much as 4 pounds of fruit with this recipe, or you could also easily double it for a larger haul.
PIQUANT PEARS WITH BAY AND BLACK PEPPER
2.5 pounds (or more, see above) small, firm pears—I used slightly underripe Boscs
1.5 cup water
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
2" x 1" strip of lemon zest (approximately -- I just whacked off a wide strip of lemon peel with my sharpest knife and then carefully scraped away all the white pith)
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, lightly crushed
3 small bay leaves (bear in mind that I used California bay, which is considerably stronger than Turkish or Mediterranean bay—adjust accordingly)
juice of 1/2 lemon
additional strips of lemon zest
1 Make your syrup: choose a smallish pot, so that the liquid will stand at least 2 inches deep in the bottom, then add water, vinegar, sugar and honey. Stir over moderate heat until it boils. Skim the foam that rises off the honey. Add aromatics, return to a boil briefly then turn off heat.
2 Peel, quarter and carefully core the pears. As you work, place the fruit in a bowl with the lemon juice to prevent browning, and periodically turn the fruit over the juice to coat it well.
3 Bring the syrup back to a boil, and introduce a single layer of pear slices to the hot liquid. (You'll be working in several batches.) Return to a boil and cook for five minutes or more until the pears are soft but not mushy.
4 Carefully spoon the cooked pears into your prepared jars. Fit them in snugly, gentle shaking jar to settle the slices, but don't smash the soft fruit. To each jar, add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and a fresh strip of lemon zest. Don't yet top up with syrup or seal.
5 Repeat steps 3 & 4 until you have cooked and packed all pears. Now top up jars with hot syrup, leaving 1/2" headspace. Run a thin implement (i use a bamboo skewer, but you could also use a knife or a small spatula) around the inside of the jar to release air bubbles. Skim any foam or bubbles off the top of the liquid, wipe rims clean and seal.
6 Process jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.
2.5 pounds pears yielded 2 pint