Where the Microwave Shines


I have a long history with microwave cooking. In the 1970's, when I was a student at NYU, one of my assignments was to develop recipes for their one microwave oven which dated back to World War II. A few years later, Elizabeth Alston, who was the food editor of Redbook Magazine asked me if I would like to do a freelance story on microwave cooking. I declined, saying it doesn't do everything well to which she said: Good! Then do only what it does do well! (I have admired her ever since and had a great time working on the recipes with a nutritionist, Gail Becker, who did the nutritional analysis.

The upshot was that we were so taken with microwave cooking, we decided to start a cooking school specializing in it. I put in a call to Mimi Sheraton, who at the time was writing about cooking schools for the New York Times. She asked me when the school was starting and my response was: "When will you be writing about it." She informed me that the New York Times would never stand behind microwave ovens as they were dangerous and, as the wife of a radiologist, how could I consider such a thing. (This was before Barbara Kafka had her weekly microwave column for the New York Times--lesson: never say never.) I explained to Mimi that because my husband was a radiologist I knew that there are two different types of rays, and the one that is used in microwaves is on the same wave length as that of radios. I'm not sure if she was convinced, but somehow the microwave school never happened.

A short time later, NYU lost their microwave teacher who told me that she was tired of academia and was going into industry. They begged me to teach the class and I agreed as long as I didn't have to grade exams. It turned out to be a great opportunity to explore recipes conducive to microwave cooking, and I even took the class on a field trip to the Sharp corporation in NJ to try out their microwave/convection oven.

Out of all the recipes that were created in that class, there is one that stands above the rest as the most enlightening, so I'm going to share it with you here and I hope you will be inspired to try it. I wish I had the name of the student who created it as she did a splendid job adapting the recipe and writing it up as is presented in her words here. It is for a classic french dessert, Poires Belle Helène and perfect for this time of year when pears are at their finest.

Pears au Chocolat

4 pears 1 cup red wine (1-1/2 cups for conventional method)
4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup sugar
lemon zest & juice from 1/2 lemon

Sauce (this was wonderfully shiny)
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate bits
1/3 cup heavy cream (1/2 cup for conventional method)
1/4 cup sugar dash salt
2T butter 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Microwave Method The lemon was placed in the microwave oven for 20 seconds to help prevent the peeled pears from browning. The wine, cloves, cinnamon, sugar, and lemon zests were heated on high, covered, for 2 minutes. The pears were added with the stems turned inward, covered with saran wrap and vented. They were cooked on 70% power for 12 minutes. They were turned over half way through the cooking process. They were then cooled and chilled in the syrup overnight. *(The cooking liquid in the poaching of the pears and the chocolate sauce was reduced slightly to compensate for the food density.) The chocolate sauce was prepared by combining the chocolate bits and the cream in a glass dish. They were covered and vented and placed in the mw for 2 minutes at 100% power, and stirred once halfway through. The sugar and salt were added, recovered, and vented. They were microwaved at 100% power for 1-1/2 minutes (stirred halfway through the cooking process). The butter and vanilla were stirred into the sauce. The pears were removed from the syrup and dried gently with a paper towel. The bottoms were trimmed to allow the pears to sit upright. The cooled chocolate sauce was then spooned over the pears. The recipe for the chocolate sauce was repeated in a microwave oven with a variety of power settings. The chocolate and cream were combined in a glass dish, covered and vented, and cooked at 50% for 2-1/2 minutes (stirred once halfway through). The remainder of the recipe remained unchanged.

Conventional Method The pears were peeled and dropped into cold water with the lemon juice. The wine, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, lemon zest were heated until the sugar dissolved. The pears were added and simmered--partially covered--until tender--55 minutes. They were then cooled and chilled overnight. The sauce was prepared by combining the chocolate and cream in a double boiler. They were stirred over low heat until the chocolate melted. The sugar and salt were added and cooked another five minutes. The butter and vanilla were then stirred into the mixture. The pears were removed from the syrup and dried gently with a paper towel. The bottoms were trimmed to allow the pears to sit upright. The cooled chocolate sauce was then spooned over the pears.

Conclusions: The conventionally prepared pears were not quite as tender as they should have been; and possibly could have been poached longer. Therefore, after cooking the pears for 55 minutes, the taste was similar to an unripe pear. The chocolate sauce was thick and rich with an appropriately creamy consistency and glossy finish. The pears poached in the microwave were uniformly cooked, tender, and sweet after 12 minutes in the microwave. The first chocolate sauce prepared in the microwave did not fare quite as well. It was a thin and runny chocolate sauce with a grainy texture due to overcooking. However, when the same recipe was repeated at 50% power (2-1/2 minutes) the result was similar to the conventionally prepared chocolate sauce.