Pears hit a high note during the holiday season, thanks to one famously repetitive Christmas carol, but also because they're plentiful for the picking at the grocery store.

Dare we say it, but it makes "pear-fect" sense that December is National Pear Month and a time for this fruit to step out and shine.

The humble pear has much to trumpet, offering a creamier texture and more delicate flavor than apples but can be used in almost all the same ways.

The Pacific Northwest produces 84 percent of this country's fresh pears. Pioneers brought European varieties west, where they flourished in the volcanic soil and warm-days, cool-nights climate of Oregon and Washington.

While simply eating the fruit out of hand satisfies many a pear lover, pears also are central to a variety of sweet and savory dishes. They provide a wonderful foil to salty, sharp or pungent cheeses and pair well with wine.

Bartlett pears are the best-known variety, the one that changes from green to yellow as it ripens. Others such as Anjou, Bosc and Comice display little change in color over time.

Which is the sweetest pear of all? Some say the small, crunchy Seckel. Comice also is known for its sweetness and Bosc for a kiss of honey flavor.

Shoppers find mostly rock-hard pears at the store, and there's a reason why: Most pears ripen best off the tree or otherwise will become grainy. The fruit is picked when mature but still quite firm and needs some time to become its best.

An exception is the Asian pear, which does ripen on the tree. It is also referred to as an "apple pear" due to its roundness and crunchy texture.

Lauren Mitterer, chef-owner of WildFlour Pastry on Spring Street, most recently made sake-poached pears and found that she liked working with the Asian type "because they had the flavor of pear but the texture of apple."

Pears can be challenging to cook with because some turn so soft, she says. And once a pear begins to ripen, keep a close watch because "it's a small window" before the ripening goes too far, she says.

When cooking pears, choose the firmer varieties that can withstand heat better the others. Bosc, Anjou and Concorde take poaching, baking and grilling better than Bartlett and Comice, which turn overly soft and lose flavor.

One drawback of pears is the browning that occurs once the flesh is exposed to the air. Slow that down by brushing or coating the cut surface with a mild solution of 50 percent lemon juice and 50 percent water.

The bottom line is that cut pears should be used as quickly as practical. Lightly poaching pears also will slow the browning process.

Fresh Anjou Pear Tart

Serves 8 to 10

Roasted and ground hazelnuts add a toasty crunch that pairs well with the fresh pear.

Ingredients

3 ounces almond paste

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened to room temperature

2 eggs

3/4 cup hazelnuts, roasted and ground

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup chocolate, melted

1 prepared 9-inch tart shell

4 firm, ripe Anjou pears, peeled, cored and sliced about 1/4-inch thick

1 lemon, juiced

4 ounces apricot preserves, melted and strained

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. For filling, cream together almond paste and sugar. Add butter and mix until smooth. Add eggs, mixing well after each addition. Add ground hazelnuts and vanilla and mix. Brush melted chocolate on bottom of prepared tart shell and pour in filling. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until filling is lightly browned and set in the center.

Cool tart on rack. When the tart is cooled, toss pear slices gently with lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. Arrange pear slices in concentric circles. Brush completed tart with strained apricot preserves.

Roasted Pear and Squash Soup

Serves 6

This velvety smooth soup can be made up to 3 days ahead. Cool and refrigerate, covered; warm just before serving.

The croutons can be made 2 days in advance. Store in a covered container at room temperature.

For soup:

2 pounds delicata squash or butternut squash, cut in half lengthwise and seeded

2 firm but ripe Anjou or Bartlett pears, cut in half lengthwise and cored

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cups canned low-sodium chicken broth

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

For Parmesan croutons:

2 cups 1/2-inch cubes of French or rustic white bread, crusts removed

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

For soup: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the flesh of the squash and pears with olive oil and place, cut side down, on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast until tender when pierced with a fork, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Use a spoon to scrape out the flesh of the squash and pears, and put in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Discard the skins.

Puree squash and pear pulp until smooth. Add 1 to 2 cups of the chicken broth and continue processing until smooth. Put this mixture in a 3 1/2- to 4-quart saucepan; add the remaining chicken broth, cream, nutmeg and sugar. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For croutons: Place the bread cubes in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle the olive oil over, add Parmesan, and toss the bread cubes until thoroughly coated. Spread in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until toasty brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Set aside until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, ladle the soup into a warmed soup tureen or individual soup bowls, garnish with the croutons, and serve immediately.

Butterscotch Baked Pears

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 firm-ripe pears

1/2 lemon

3 ounces (6 tablespoons) butter, cut into pieces

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

2/3 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon Scotch whisky (optional)

Directions

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel the pears, cut them in half lengthwise, and, using a melon baller, scoop out the cores. Rub them all over with the lemon half to prevent browning.

In a heavy 10-inch ovenproof skillet, melt the butter. Add the granulated sugar and brown sugar and stir to dissolve. Arrange the pears in the pan, cut side down, in a single layer. Bake the pears uncovered, basting occasionally with the liquid in the pan, until they begin to soften and color slightly. Depending on the pear's ripeness, baking time can range from 20 to 60 minutes. Remove the pears with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Transfer the pan to a burner and boil the mixture left behind over medium-high heat until it reaches a rich, golden brown and smells like caramel, 2 to 5 minutes. Slowly whisk the cream into the caramel until smooth. Add the vanilla, salt and Scotch, if using. Serve the sauce over the warm pears.

PB&J Bouquet

Makes 8 servings

Kids will love this colorful, fun and fruity take on the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Get kids involved in the kitchen, and let them help you make this recipe.

The strawberry preserves are sticky and can be a bit tricky to drizzle. Try a squeeze bottle for an easy fix.

Ingredients

1 Bartlett or Anjou pear

8 teaspoons peanut butter

4 teaspoons strawberry preserves

8 slices whole grain wheat bread

Directions

Use a flower-shaped cookie cutter to cut each slice of bread. If bread sticks to cutter, gently push the petals out with your fingers.

Wash the pear and dry it with a paper towel. Cut the pear in half, and remove the core. Cut each pear half into four slices, then cut each slice into five pieces.

Spread 1 teaspoon of peanut butter in a circle in the center of each of the flowers. Place 3 pieces of pear on the peanut butter on each flower. Arrange the pears so the skin is facing out and the white centers are touching in the middle. Drizzle 1/2 teaspoon of strawberry preserves in the center of each flower and over the pears.

Use leftover pear pieces for eating as is.

Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at 937-4886.