A classic of French bistro menus, poires belle Hélène is a dessert of sweet and gently spiced poached pears served with vanilla ice cream and draped under a glossy sheet of warm chocolate sauce. It plays the part of an elegant and indulgent dessert, yet it’s incredibly simple to make.
The invention of the dessert is attributed to the esteemed French chef Auguste Escoffier, who was working at Parisian restaurant Le Petit Moulin Rouge in 1865. In December 1864, Jacques Offenbach’s Opéra bouffe “La Belle Hélène”—a musical parody of Helen’s elopement to Paris, which started the Trojan War—premiered in Paris Montmartre’s Théâtre des Variétés. The show of frenzied songs and flamboyant costumes was very successful and ran in Paris for more than 500 performances until 1866.
The show notably starred renowned French soprano Hortense Schneider—playing the role of the Belle Hélène—who’s said to have seduced Escoffier and inspired him to create a lavish dessert of poached pears and melted chocolate sauce. The soon-to-be-famous poires belle Hélène was born.
(Fun fact: Roughly 30 years later, Escoffier created another dessert to a similar tune: the peche Melba, poached peaches with vanilla ice cream and a sweet-tart raspberry coulis, in honor of Australian soprano Nellie Melba.)
The Starring Fruit
In essence, a great poires belle Hélène is really all about the pears: choosing the right ones, delicately coring and peeling them, and then poaching them until perfectly sweet, spiced, and tender. Once you properly complete these steps, all you need is a chocolate sauce, a sprinkle of sliced almonds, and an optional scoop of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream for serving—all of which are meant to make the pears shine even more.
With that in mind, here are a few tips to successfully prepare and poach the pears before dressing up your plates or bowls.
Choosing the Pears
In France, classic poires belle Hélène is typically made with Williams’ Bon Chretien pears, commonly known as Bartlett pears in North America. Another great option is Bosc pears, which are easier to find in North America (as they’re more resistant to colder American winters) and often more affordable as well. Both varieties are smooth, often with an even shape and skin that makes them easy to peel. They also hold a great shape and sweetness after being poached.
When shopping for the pears, choose those that are perfectly firm and ripe. Press near the stem with your thumb, and you should feel a slight give, but doing so shouldn’t leave a dent in the pear. If underripe, the pears won’t poach well. If overripe, they’ll turn mushy. Also ensure that they have as few blemishes as possible and that they still have their peduncle (stem) well attached.
Coring and Peeling
Coring the pears starts by slicing them horizontally at the base to help them stand upright and to expose the core. Then, carefully with a small sharp knife, cut a circle around the core to scoop it out. You don’t need to cut deep, as most of a pear’s core is usually around the base, and you want to keep as much flesh as possible.
To peel the pears, start from the top, at the base of the peduncle (stem), and move toward the bottom. Peel large strips, ideally even in thickness, so the pears still look harmoniously shaped once peeled.
It’s important to keep the stems attached, both for aesthetic and practical purposes. Each pear is traditionally served standing upright with its stem still in place, and when poaching the pears, you’ll find it easier to grab them by their stems to flip them or swirl them around to poach evenly.
The Perfect Poach
Simplified versions of poires belle Hélène replace poached pears with canned pears in syrup—which is great for when you’re running out of time or when pears aren’t in season. However, I almost always like to make my own poached pears, in order to control their firmness and infuse them with my spices and other flavorings of choice.
You’ll often find the poaching syrup flavored with vanilla bean. But for the holidays, you can also add warm spices such as cinnamon and star anise, as I do in this recipe.
Assembly and Serving
Poires belle Hélène is a dessert made “à la minute,” meaning that it’s assembled very quickly and served immediately. But you can prepare all of its components ahead of time.
You can prepare the pears up to 2 days in advance and store them in their poaching syrup in an airtight container in the fridge. You can make the chocolate sauce a few hours ahead of time and reheat it very gently before serving. When it’s time to serve, place a pear on each plate with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if desired, drizzle with warm chocolate sauce and sprinkle with almond slices.
Poires Belle Hélène (Classic French Poached Pears)
4 firm pears, peeled and cored (see notes above) with stems intact
1/4 cup sliced almonds In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon sticks, and star anise. Bring to a low boil and simmer, whisking occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Add the pears and poach for about 15 to 18 minutes, flipping the pears occasionally. To test the doneness, poke a paring knife into the thickest part of the fruit. It should feel soft and cooked through, but not too soft or mushy. Remove from heat, and allow the pears to cool in the poaching syrup.
For the chocolate sauce, combine the chocolate and heavy cream in a saucepan over low heat. Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and the sauce is smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract.
Using a spatula or slotted spoon, carefully transfer the pears onto serving plates or bowls. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to each, if desired. Drape each pear with chocolate sauce and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Serve immediately.
Audrey Le Goff is a French food writer, photographer, and creator of the food blog PardonYourFrench.com, where she shares recipes and stories from her beloved home country, France. She is the author of the cookbook “Rustic French Cooking Made Easy” (2019). She currently lives in Niagara, Canada. Follow her on Instagram @pardonyourfrench.