Poires Belle Hélène is a classic French dessert of poached pears with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream. The combination of tender, sweet fruit, cold ice cream and warm sauce is a wonderful treat for both the senses and tastebuds. And it's easy to make too!
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If you are a regular around here, you might know that I am a big fan of pears. They can be overlooked in favor of apples, but it would be a mistake. Whether in my French pear cake which is a consistent favorite with friends (and readers) or simple salads like pear gorgonzola salad, they add a wonderful flavor and texture.
I feel like French cuisine seems to appreciate them that little bit more (like the cake above), and this dessert is a perfect example. It starts with another classic French way with pears - poaching them - then dresses it up into something extra special.
These days it might be seen as a little bit retro, but it's worth getting past any hangups that label might give you. This is a delicious combination, that also looks impressive so would be perfect to serve guests.
Where does poires Belle Hélène originate?
As you can probably tell, this is a French dessert, but the origins beyond that are not completely clear. The name is generally agreed to refer to Offenbach's opera Belle Hélène (literally "beautiful Helen" about Helen of Troy). Some suggest it was created for when the opera first debuted, in 1864.
What is more widely believed, though, is that Parisian chef Auguste Escoffier created the dish to honor the opera singer Hortense Schneider. She was playing the lead in the opera a few years later and he was chef in a restaurant not too far from the theater. But exactly why he named it after her or the role is unclear.
In any event, the dessert became popular and it's easy to understand why. It's elegant and combines already delicious ingredients into something even more special. But unlike some haute cuisine dishes, it's one that's easy to make at home.
What kind of pear is best?
You are best to use a firm pear for this since they will soften a little through cooking. Bosc is my go-to variety but you could also use Anjou. Smaller pears that are also on the firmer side like Forelle could also work.
I do not recommend using Bartlett as they tend to be and as a result, may well fall apart or become more bruised through the cooking process. They are definitely better to enjoy as a snack or else in dishes where soft works.
What goes in the poaching liquid?
For this dessert, you typically use a relatively simple mix of water, sugar and a few aromatics to add subtle flavor. Most add a vanilla pod, and you often use star anise and/or some citrus peel, as I have here. This combination works well with the rich chocolate sauce.
For poaching more generally, you can be a bit more creative. Wine is a common swap for some of the liquid, and you might add a cinnamon stick in there as well. It can be fun to play around with flavors and colors.
Tips for poaching pears
Poaching pears might seem intimidating, but it's really pretty easy. Basically, you prepare a syrup as the poaching liquid, then cook peeled pears in the mixture. For this dessert, you typically leave the pears whole and with the stem on, but for other uses you might find it easier to cut the pears into pieces so they cook a little quicker and are easier to core.
Here, though, a couple tips:
- Use a pot that holds the pears snugly - see photo above. It should be deep enough they can be covered (though they will float), but without too much space around them. If they are pointed to one side that's fine.
- Start warming your poaching liquid before you peel the pears to limit how long they are left peeled before going in the liquid.
- Peel all over and as close to the stem as possible but don't remove the stem. It both looks good for presentation and is handy to hold as you turn the pears.
- Peel a little on the base to help the pear stand flat. This will help when you come to serve them.
- Core the pear from the base. This can be a little tricky, but try your best to get in and scoop out the core with either a knife or a corer.
- Turn the pears as they cook to help them cook evenly. They will naturally float up a little so the top tends not to be submerged.
Preparing ahead and storing poached pears
The main bit of preparation for this dish is poaching the pears which you need to do ahead of time. However they are easy to make and you can do this a couple days ahead, if needed.
You can store cooked poached pears in the fridge by placing them in an airtight container with the poaching liquid. They will keep a good 3 - 5 days, or possibly longer.
Also, it can be an idea to make additional poached pears to use for other things. They are great with yogurt and granola for breakfast, added to a simple salad and more.
You can make the sauce ahead as well, if you like, then cover, store in the fridge and reheat when needed. Just take cake to only re-heat gently so you don't wither scald the sauce or cause it to separate.
You are best to reheat the sauce in much the same way as you make it - either using a double boiler or a short reheat in the microwave, then stir to spread the heat.
Poires belle Hélène might sound fancy, but these poached pears with chocolate sauce and ice cream are easy to make. The result feels decadent, looks elegant and is all delicious. Perfect for entertaining or just because, be sure to enjoy them soon.
Try these other autumnal desserts:
- Apple tarte tatin (the classic upside-down tart)
- Tikvenik - Bulgarian pumpkin strudel (a delicious coiled pastry with spiced pumpkin filling)
- Apple snack cake (more of a tea or coffee-time treat but easy and so tasty)
- Pear clafoutis (a fall take on the classic set custard-like dessert with fruit inside)
- Plus get more dessert recipes and fall recipes in the archives.
Poires belle Hélène - poached pears with chocolate sauce
For poached pears
- 3 pears recommend Bosc
- 2 ½ cups water 600ml
- ¾ cup sugar 150g
- 1 vanilla pod
- 1 star anise
- 1 strip lemon zest
- 1 strip orange zest
For warm chocolate sauce
- 3 oz dark chocolate 84g (around ½ cup chips)
- ¼ cup cream (can use heavy/double or light/single as you have)
- 2 tablespoon syrup from poaching, above
- 3 scoops vanilla ice cream
For poached pears (do ahead)
- Make sure the pears can fit snugly in the pot you will use - it's fine if you need to put the tops to one side, but you don't want too much space around them. Set the pears to one side.
- Place the water, sugar, vanilla pod, star anise and strips of lemon and orange zest (you can use more than one of each if you like) in the pot. Place over a medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring now and then to dissolve the sugar.
- Meanwhile, peel the pears, being careful to leave the stems attached. Remove the core from the base with either a corer or knife, carefully scooping out without damaging the pear itself. Then, peel over the bottom once to make the base slightly flat so that it stands easily.
- Once the poaching liquid is simmering, carefully add the pears into the liquid, letting them be as well covered as you can (they will likely float a little). Simmer the pears in the liquid around 20 - 25 minutes, turning now and then to make sure all sides are submerged at some point. You can test the pear with a skewer or thin sharp knife to make sure they are tender, if you like, then remove the pot from the heat. Let the pears cool in the poaching liquid.
- Once the pears have cooled sufficiently, transfer the pears to an airtight container and add the poaching liquid. Cover and store in the fridge for 3-5 days until ready to use.
For warm chocolate sauce
- Place all of the ingredients (chocolate, as chips or cut up, cream and syrup) in a small microwavable bowl and heat for around 20 - 25 seconds. The liquid should be just gently warm and the chocolate should start to melt as you stir. Stir to melt the chocolate completely and mix everything together to form a smooth sauce. Alternatively, you can heat everything together in a double boiler (bain Marie), stirring constantly to melt chocolate and form a smooth sauce.
- Serve a pear, standing upright on it's base, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and the warm chocolate sauce poured over the pear.
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