I do love a story – especially when it’s about something as delicious as a poached pear sitting on good vanilla ice cream and given a warm, clinging thick coat of French chocolate sauce. Did you know that the Parisian classic dessert, Poire Belle Helene, was born when a famous chef fell in love with a silky soprano’s voice? It’s a pair-fectly scumptious love story between music and dessert.
The scrumptious musical inspiration happened in Paris, 17 December 1864 at the Théâtre des Variétés on Boulevard Montmartre. The French soprano, Hortense Schneider (known as la Snédèr) was singing the title role of Helen of Troy (or Sparta) in the first performance of Jacques Offenbach’s opera bouffe, La Belle-Hélène.
Funnily enough, the soprano was originally turned down by the Théâtre des Variétés when she came to Paris from Bordeaux. It’s thanks to Offenbach who invited her to the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in Passage Choiseul, which the composer founded in 1855 for the performance of his operettas and opera bouffes. From then on, Hortense Schneider became a real Parisian celebrity – even if she was renowned for being a bit of a Prima Donna.
Captivated by Schneider’s silky smooth voice as the beautiful Helen at that first performance, the young chef, Auguste Escoffier – who would be a mere 18 years old – dreamt up this symphony of flavours: a pear poached in vanilla syrup, served with vanilla ice cream and topped with the silkiest smooth French chocolate sauce. Could the soprano have been a bit pear-shaped?
Here was chef Escoffier’s Beautiful Helen Pear or Poire Belle Hélène. Somehow it sounds so much better in French, doesn’t it? Like a good tune, it’s all in the mixing of simple, good ingredients. So, please use good quality chocolate for the sauce, good fresh Pear Williams (ripe but firm; not turnips, either!) – and if you don’t use homemade ice cream, then use good quality which uses vanilla beans/pods rather than just an aroma.
As you can see from some of the photos, the chocolate sauce thickened as it became cool in taking these pictures. If you prefer your sauce to be more liquid, then add just a little more cream before reheating.
Normally the Pear Belle Helene dessert is garnished with grilled flaked almonds but, as I adore chocolate and hazelnuts together, toasted broken hazelnuts add a cracking crescendo to a delicious finale. A chocolate hazelnut macaron adds a fabulous Encore (recipe in Mad About Macarons)
Poire Belle Helene – the Recipe
The Classic Parisian dessert of a poached pear, vanilla ice cream and thick French chocolate sauce was invented by legendary chef, Auguste Escoffier, after hearing the French soprano, Hortense Schneider, sing the title role in Offenbach's Belle-Hélène in Paris, 1864.
- 250 g (9oz) sugar
- 500 ml (18fl oz) water
- 1/4 tsp vanilla powder (optional)
- 6 pears (Williams, ripe but firm) peeled, stalk and core left intact
- 1 litre tub vanilla ice cream
- 40 g (1.5oz) broken hazelnuts, grilled (for garnish)
- 100 ml (3.5 fl oz) double cream (Crème fleurette 30% fat)
- 50 ml (2fl oz) full cream milk
- 125 g (4.5oz) dark chocolate bittersweet (at least 64%)
In a large saucepan, boil the water and sugar to form a syrup. Add the vanilla powder, if using.
Peel the pears, leaving the stalk and the core intact. Ensure the pears are covered by the syrup by placing parchment paper on top and cover with a lid. Poach in the syrup for about 30 minutes until tender.
Remove the pears from the syrup and finely cut the ends off so that each pear can stand up right without falling over. Chill in the fridge until needed.
Heat together the cream and milk over a medium heat until nearly boiling. Break the chocolate into a bowl, pour over the hot cream and stir until the chocolate sauce is smooth.
In each serving dish, serve 2 scoops of ice cream, top with a pear and pour over the sauce. Garnish with grilled or toasted hazelnuts and serve immediately.
To bring out the tasty crunch of the toasted hazelnuts, serve with Hazelnut and Chocolate Chip Cookies – another perfect duet that sings along with Hortense’s interpretation of Offenbach and a Poire Belle Helene dessert!
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