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Poires Belle Hélène and other chocolate and pear partnerships

"Pears go well with chocolate, they dance together on the taste buds like Fred and Ginger" Larder Love

We have reverted to the Zoom cooking classes and today is the day. It is mid-afternoon, so I'm not sure I shall finish this.

We are going to make a dessert with pears and chocolate. Probably not a classic Poires Belle Hélène, but something very similar - poached pears with a chocolate sauce anyway. I thought of this because pears are cheap at the moment, and I saw Nigella make this a little while ago and I slotted it away in my head as something simple the kids could do. In the end I decided to go with a different recipe to Nigella, but anyway first a little bit about why it's called Poires Belle Hélène.

"They say Auguste Escoffier created this dish in honor of the opera, La Belle Hélène, but we chefs know the real reason. How else are you going to use up bruised pears in such a delicious and beautiful way?" Chef John

This is indeed the origin story, but those who are interested quarrel over the details. Yes it was Auguste Escoffier who invented it - very famous French chef of the time. 1864 was the premier of this operetta, by Offenbach, based on the story of Helen of Troy. According to one article I read, Escoffier was a mere 18 years old at the time, and fell in love with the voice of the singer who played Helen - they didn't say he fell in love with singer Hortense Schneider but Belle does appear in the name of the dish. Fundamentally all the experts seem to agree that it was related to the operetta but not necessarily with the premier. The operetta was supremely successful and was performed at least 500 times. Indeed it was so successful that almost every chef in the Paris of the time invented a dish with the name Belle Hélène. So maybe Escoffier was just one of them - a leader or a follower? Who knows.

Back to the above quote though. The first thing to say about that is that opinion seems to differ on whether the pears should be soft and bruised or hard as witness this statement from Gourmet Traveller:

"The success of the dish relies on perfectly poached pears, which in turn depend on selecting the perfect pears for poaching - ripe, yet firm, with no tinge of green in the skin, nor any bumps or bruises." Gourmet Traveller

Go figure. I should also say that there are also recipes for this classic dish out there which use tinned pears. Fundamentally you poach your pears - whole usually - although that beautiful version at the top of the page from My Parisian Kitchen poaches the pears whole, then cuts them in half, removes the cores and puts them back together again. Clever. Another trick to the kind of presentation that has the pears standing upright is to either cut out a bit where the core is, or take slice off of the bottom so that it will stand upright and not fall over. Ice cream is a fundamental accompaniment by the way. The poaching syrups vary and the kinds of pear vary, as does the chocolate sauce and the final plating - but it always looks magnificent as here:

I see I have chosen examples in which the pear sits on top of the chocolate, but there are just as many more with the chocolate on top, and and many chefs recommended allowing your guests to pour the chocolate sauce over the pear themselves. The first one shown here is basically the version I have chosen for tonight's experiment. It's a recipe from Justin North on The Age Good Food website.

I thought there would probably be variations on this dish and there were but not as far from the original as I thought - mostly it was just, as I said, variations in how you made the poaching syrup or the chocolate sauce. Here are two - Jamie Oliver's Boozy pears and chocolate which uses tinned pears and toasted nuts, and Nigel Slater who fills the poached pears with a cream and crunchy biscuit mix before dribbling over the chocolate sauce - no ice-cream and calls it Pears with Florentine Cream. I'll also add in Waffles with pears and chocolate sauce from Alison Roberts - well you could easily add ice cream and the waffles are just an extra, like Nigel Slater's Florentines and Jamie Oliver's hazelnuts.

So I decided to expand my search to just pears and chocolate and, honestly, I was just inundated. Taste has 134 recipes for starters. So here are a few. Obviously pear and chocolate is a winning combination, although hardly anyone, I noticed went for white chocolate. Probably because the colour is too much like the colour of the pears, although a clever stylist could make quite a thing of that surely. White on white or cream is so elegant somehow.

Felicity Cloake maintained that Chocolate and pear pudding was a classic British school dinner dessert.

"When it comes to puddings, however, dinner ladies always know best, and this is an undeniable classic of the genre: a very superior sort of sugary stodge indeed."

However, neither David nor I could remember having had it in either of our two very different schools - a posh private school and an ordinary state grammar school. There were admittedly other versions of this out there, but Felicity Cloake did a pretty good survey of them all, as she always does.

Then there are the cakes. Lots of them. Sticky pear chocolate mud cake from Coles; Pear and chocolate croissant cakes from the late Valli Little; Chocolate pear cake from Julia's Album; Upside-down pear chocolate cake from Epicurious and Chocolate pear cake from the River Cottage crew.

If you can make a cake then you can make a tart, and there are also heaps of examples out there, headed by Jamie Oliver (who I have to say seems to be into pears and chocolate), with his Vin santo and pear chocolate tart; at the other end of the scale Coles has a quickie - Pear, chocolate and hazelnut tarts and if you are a vegan you can go for this rather gorgeous looking Vegan pear, chocolate and almond galette from The Guardian's Meera Sodha.

Ottolenghi has cookies White chocolate and pear cookies - there are lots of others out there of course, but his use white chocolate and lime and cardamom - well they had to have something like that. Nigel Slater has a crumble - Pear and chocolate oat crumble - again there are lots of others; and Thomasina Miers goes for a trifle - Pear, panettone and chocolate trifle. I didn't see many other trifles but seeing the mention of the panettone reminds me that a few people had bread and butter pudding kind of things.

I give the prize for originality though to the lady of Larder Love who makes Spiced pear and chocolate jam. Jam! I would never have thought of putting chocolate in jam, although she says she has also made a raspberry and chocolate jam, and pears are not the first fruit you think of to make jam with either are they? Like apples.

A sudden thought - what about drinks? Well yes - lots of smoothie recipes which seems somehow counterintuitive to me. Aren't smoothies supposed to be healthy? But I also found a Martini:

Combine pear vodka, chocolate liqueur and cream in a shaker filled with ice cubes, and shake until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a chocolate curl.

Well if you can have a coffee Martini, why not a chocolate one I suppose? Pear vodka. I didn't know there was such a thing. Or try a different kind of hot chocolate - Chocolate milk with pear and ginger - from Tinned Tomatoes - the Scottish Vegetarian.

So there you have it - pears and chocolate. A rather more tempting pairing than sesame seeds and roses I guess. More homely and familiar anyway. Not exotic and strange. Given the ideas above I'm sure we could all thing of something else or at the vary least a variation on any of the above.


We did Zoom and the girls made the pears. The boys' father did not think the boys would be up to it - I think they were a bit offended. Anyway they didn't make the pears. The girls' pears look delicious. I made some too, but forgot to photograph them. I think that recipe had far too much syrup. Otherwise it was great though. Here is the girls' finished dish.

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