This week, as the autumnal weather seems to be staying with us, I thought it time to bridge the gap between the light freshness of summer and the deeper, more complex flavours of the later months.
I’d seen a recipe earlier this year that was a sort of DIY Eton Mess – they’d called it an Eton Tidy as it was so neat! – where the berries and cream were neatly arranged in a perfect nest of meringue, with the raspberry coulis poured over at the table.
The idea was to smash it all up on the plate according to one’s mood. It looked superb, and I fancied trying it, but events rather got in the way, and here we are at the very end of the berry season, where it’s inappropriate to use imported fruit, and the moment has, sadly, gone for this year.
Undeterred, I simply thought of which fruits I could actually use, and the answer lay with the pipped things, which are in perfect condition right now.
I thought of doing something with apples and caramel, or maybe figs, but then the idea struck me of reworking the classic Poire Belle Hélène, Escoffier’s wonderful dessert.
Poached pears, crunchy almonds, cool cream and rich hot chocolate sauce all seemed perfect to smash up with crunchy meringue, I thought. I had my recipe, and set to making notes and digging out recipes for all the elements.
Fruit-wise, I prefer to use the neat Bosc pear, but most Conference-type varieties will poach well. Just watch them like a hawk as they bubble away – like the fresh fruit, pears can sense when you’re not paying attention, and ripen or collapse out of spite.
The varying textures of different types of pear mean that some take a while to poach and some are relatively quick. Keep prodding with a small knife as they bob away in the syrup.
Essentially this recipe is an assembly job, so many of the elements can be prepared well ahead of plating up, making it a good dinner-party pudding.
The poached pears, the purée, the chocolate sauce and the meringues can all be made days before you need them. You could even be super-lazy and buy meringue nests, but it’s fun to make them, and they have much better flavour and texture than the commercial versions.
You could further enhance this dish with a scoop of vanilla or chocolate ice-cream, but as it is it’s a lovely light dish, and a great autumnal way to recreate the classic Eton Mess for this time of the year.
FOR THE MERINGUES:
2 free-range egg whites
110g refined white caster sugar
FOR THE PEARS:
4 large pears (Bosc, Conference)
300g unrefined golden caster sugar
A little lemon juice
1 vanilla pod
FOR THE CARAMEL PEAR PURéE:
2 pears, cored, peeled and diced
2 tbsps unrefined golden caster sugar
A little lemon juice
FOR THE CHOCOLATE SAUCE:
125ml double cream
50g dark chocolate (at least 75% cocoa)
25g unsalted butter
1 tbsp unrefined golden caster sugar
A pinch of Maldon salt
FOR THE CHANTILLY CREAM:
300ml whipping cream
A little icing sugar
The seeds of the vanilla pod
A few toasted flaked almonds
A little mint
To make the meringue nests, heat the oven to 150ºC / Gas 2 and line a baking sheet with parchment. Draw light circles about 9cm in diameter on the paper. Place the egg whites in a large spotlessly-clean bowl and whisk on low speed for about 2 minutes, until the whites are foamy, then turn the speed up to high and continue whisking until the egg whites reach the stiff-peak stage. Whisk the sugar in on fast speed until you have a stiff and glossy mixture. Pipe the meringue neatly in spirals on the marked circles and smooth with a finger or palette knife making neat discs. Then, carefully pipe one or two rings around the edge, making neat little nests.
Pop the tray on the centre shelf of the oven, reduce the heat to 140°C / Gas 1, and bake for about an hour. Open the oven door, turn off the heat, and leave the meringues to set up until the oven is cold.
To poach the pears, split the vanilla pod, and save the seeds for the Chantilly cream. Put the pod into a heavy-based pan along with the sugar and water, plus a good splash of lemon juice. Bring to a gentle simmer. Peel the pears, keeping the stalk, then halve them carefully and use a spoon or melon baller to remove the pips from the middle. Lower each pear half into the bubbling syrup.
Make a disc of baking parchment just wider than the pan, and cut a hole in the middle, then press this over the simmering pears. This helps keep them submerged for uniform poaching. Poach over gentle heat for 20-25 minutes or until a knife passes easily through the flesh. Remove from the syrup (this will freeze well for future poaching) and drain.
To make the caramelised purée, gently heat a couple of tablespoons of caster sugar with a splash of water until it has dissolved, then turn up the heat and swoosh the pan around until you have a nice dark golden caramel colour. Throw in the pear pieces, a splash of lemon juice and a little water, being careful as it will spit. Reduce the heat and simmer until the pears are falling apart. You should have a nice thick, gloopy mixture.
Whizz this in a blender or pass through a sieve to obtain a nice smooth, caramelised purée that holds its shape on a spoon. Chill until required.
For the chocolate sauce, heat the chocolate, butter, cream and sugar in a bowl over simmering water, whisking until you have a smooth sauce. Add a wee pinch of salt for extra flavour, and adjust the consistency with a little milk if you like. Keep warm until required.
For the Chantilly cream, Whip the cream to a soft peak, then fold in a little icing sugar and the vanilla seeds, beating until the cream just holds its shape. Chill until required. To assemble the dessert, place a meringue nest on each plate, securing it with a dab of pear purée. Spoon a little pear purée into the nest. Place a couple of pear halves on top, and pipe or quenelle the Chantilly cream into the nest alongside the pears. Garnish the plate with a little extra caramel purée, and sprinkle some toasted almond flakes over the plate. Garnish with mint, and serve the hot chocolate sauce separately.