Flans and pears to delight a blue-cheese connoisseur


Entertaining: A dish is inspired by a trip to England and a memorable taste of Stilton cheese.


Last winter, during a visit to England's Cotswolds, my husband and I dined in a wonderful old country inn called Buckland Manor. Our dinner there was outstanding, each course a delight.

Of all the dishes we sampled, one stood out as the most unusual. It was a warm Stilton souffle served unmolded and garnished with roasted pears drizzled with a walnut dressing. My spouse, a true blue cheese aficionado, could not stop talking about this first course, so I promised to try to reproduce it when we returned home. However, time passed and somehow I never got around to working on this recipe.

Then, this winter, as I began to plan the menus for my cooking classes, I thought of that blue cheese and pear creation, and my mouth began to water.

I spent an afternoon in my kitchen with one of my talented assistants, and together we came up with a dish reminiscent of the one I had enjoyed. Instead of using blue cheese in a souffle, I opted to make savory flans. The custards were a more practical choice for me, a home cook, since they can be unmolded and made in advance, whereas the souffles must be served immediately. I also used pears and walnuts in my version.

I sauteed pear slices quickly and then drizzled them with balsamic vinegar and arranged them around the flans. And I toasted walnuts, chopped them coarsely and garnished the top of the custards with them.

Any good blue cheese could be used in these flans. Although Stilton is a fine choice, I tested them with two French blues, Roquefort and Bleu d'Auvergne, and was pleased with the results. And I've also omitted the cheese and fruit garnish on occasion and placed the custards on a bed of sauteed baby spinach instead. I'm going to serve pan-seared chicken breasts coated with crushed fennel seeds and rosemary and side dishes of roasted fennel and potatoes to follow these blue cheese custards, but roast lamb, grilled steaks or even baked ham would be other fine choices.

Warm Roquefort Flans With Balsamic Pears and Walnuts

Serves 6

about 4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a little extra for greasing dishes, softened

1/2 cup (2 ounces) Roquefort or other high-quality blue cheese, without rind

1/2 cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened

4 large eggs

6 tablespoons half and half

2 tablespoons sour cream

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 to 2 just-ripe pears, such as Bosc or Bartlett, cleaned but not peeled

2 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar salt, optional

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped toasted walnuts (see note)

Butter 6 (1/2-cup) souffle dishes, ramekins or custard cups. Cut 6 rounds of parchment or wax paper to fit bottom of each and butter paper.

With electric mixer on medium speed, cream together 4 tablespoons butter, Roquefort and cream cheese until smooth.

In separate bowl, whisk together eggs, half and half and sour cream until blended. Add to cheese mixture and beat on medium speed a few seconds more until smooth. If lumpy, strain through sieve and push lumps of cheese through mesh with rubber spatula. Stir in 1 1/2 tablespoons parsley and pepper. Divide mixture evenly among prepared dishes. Place dishes in baking pan and fill pan halfway with hot water.

Bake at 350 degrees on center rack until sharp knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Remove and let cool few minutes while preparing pear garnish. (Flans can be made ahead to this point. Cool, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Reheat on baking sheet in oven at 350 degrees until heated through, 10 to 15 minutes.)

Halve pears and core, then slice lengthwise into 3/8-inch-thick slices. You'll need 18 slices. Save any extra pear for another use. Heat remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter in medium, heavy skillet over medium heat. When hot, add pear slices and cook, turning once, until softened, 1 to 2 minutes, depending on ripeness of pears. Add vinegar and toss to coat pears with it. Remove from heat. Salt lightly, if desired.

Loosen edges of flans with small sharp knife, then invert flans and remove and discard paper. Place 1 flan on each of 6 salad plates. Garnish side of each flan with cluster of 3 pear wedges. Place some chopped walnuts in center on top of each flan and sprinkle with remaining parsley. Serve immediately.

Note: To toast walnuts, arrange nuts on rimmed baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until light brown and fragrant, 5 to 6 minutes. Watch carefully so nuts do not burn.

Variation: In place of pears and walnuts as garnishes, you can substitute 12 ounces baby or flat-leaf spinach. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in medium nonstick skillet. When hot, add spinach and cook, stirring, until all spinach is wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Salt to taste. To serve, make nests of spinach on 6 salad plates and top with flans. Sprinkle a little parsley on top of each flan.

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