In book club we’ve finally finished reading Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. The emphasis on the word finally is because there were times I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it to the end.
I haven’t yet written my review for Goodreads because I still am not sure what to say. It’s like when critics – and I mean proper critics, the ones who judge proper contests for movies and books and the like – pile accolades on some amazing piece of work that I just don’t get. You think you should like it, that you should feel all the things they say you should feel, but you just dont. That’s how I feel about Villette. As if I’m looking at a piece of art knowing it’s a masterpiece but saying something like ‘I know what I like but if I had it hanging in my living room it would make me feel like the world is grey.’
Yet, and there’s always a yet, there are little tendrils of vines from the book that have curled around me. That is what I both love and hate about reading Charlotte Bronte.
We have, however, one more book club meeting to go on Villette before we start reading our next Bronte – The Professor – and that is the all important baking class.
While each of the other novels has taken place largely around Yorkshire or neighbouring counties, this one is mostly set in the fictional kingdom of Labassecour which is modelled on Belgium with the town of Villette being based upon the city of Brussels.
When I think of Belgium I think of chocolate, waffles and speculaas (or speculoos) – those beautifully spiced biscuits that were traditionally baked for St Nicholas’ Day (you can find a recipe here). Then there’s carbonnade (the Flemish-style meat stew that you actually crumble speculoos into), bitterballen (beef croquettes) and moules-frites (mussels and chips).
One of the first things, though, that Lucy Snowe eats upon her arrival in Villette is a baked pear. A pear tree also features later in the novel when Lucy chooses an old pear tree to hide her treasures within.
So it is that a baked pear figures in my first Villette inspired bake – a baked pear, walnut and goat’s cheese salad.
As for the official book club bake? It had to be something that combined both pear and chocolate. At first I contemplated a chocolate pear tart, but the one I make you really need to do your own (chocolate) pastry for and I thought that could be a bit much for a baking class that should only take an hour. It was, however, a reminder that not only haven’t I made it for a while, but I’ve never blogged the recipe. Note to self to rectify that.
Before we go on to what I’ve decided on, a note on pears. I love them (especially with cheese) but they can be so, well, disappointing. They’re either under-ripe and woody and then, just like that, over-ripe and brown. Nigella was right when she said that most pears go from hard to woolly without ever passing through the luscious ripe stage. She also quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.”
Rarely has a truer word been spoken. It is, however, why poaching them or baking them allows you to enjoy the peariness of the pear without disappointment.
Anyways, in my humble opinion, the ultimate poached pear dish is Poire belle Hélène, a classic French dessert invented by Auguste Escoffier in about 1864 and (apparently) named after the operetta La Belle Hélène – another point that makes this the perfect dish for Villette given that some important scenes happen at the theatre. Further, this novel has smatterings of untranslated French throughout (Charlotte Bronte expects a lot from her readers) so it is, I think, appropriate to make something French.
It also reminds me a little of childhood desserts – tinned pears with ice cream and Cottees chocolate topping. Essentially it’s simple – pears poached in sugar syrup with chocolate syrup and vanilla ice cream. Too easy, right?
There are a few steps where a little dexterity is required – in coring the pears, for example. But even here all you need is a knife and a teaspoon.
The recipe I’ve turned to is Nigella’s from How To Eat – which makes this also a long overdue instalment in The Nigella Diaries as well (that occasional series where I cook my way through How To Eat and other books). A twofer, so to speak. She, however, uses tinned pears or halved pears. In order to get enough syrup to poach a standing pear, I’ve tweaked it a little. If, however, you can’t be faffed with the whole standing pears thing, you’ll find her recipe here. Just add a cinnamon stick to the poaching liquid.
Before we start, a note on double cream. This is different to single or pouring cream and also different to thickened cream (which is single cream with a thickenening agent added). In Australia we can buy double cream labelled as such – if you can’t in the US, check the fat content. UK double cream (which is what many of my recipes are based on) is about 48% butterfat content. As long as your cream is over 35% you should be right.
What you need
For the pears
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 150g caster sugar
- 2 1/2 cups water
- a vanilla pod or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 firm Bosc pears, peeled and cored, with stem intact
For the chocolate sauce
- 200g dark chocolate – the good stuff – broken into small pieces
- 120ml strong black coffee
- 90g caster sugar
- 120ml double cream
What you do with it
To prepare your pears, have a bowl of water to the ready that you’ve popped some lemon juice in – this will stop them from going too brown. To core your pears, lay the pear on its side and cut a thin slice from the base. This will allow it to stand beautifully on your plate. Now take a small paring or utility knife and carefully cut in and around the core, staying as close to the core as you can. Use a teaspoon to scrape it out. Now you can peel your pears, keeping the stem intact.
Into a medium saucepan (large enough to hold your pears) pop your sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and 1/2 a cup of water. Bring it to the boil and lower the heat, allowing it to simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the remaining 2 cups of water and your pears. Bring it back to the boil and again turn the heat right down, cover the pan and simmer for 10 minutes. I usually use a cartouche – a little “lid” of baking paper which keeps the pears submerged. Turn your pears over and simmer for another 5-10 minutes.
They’re cooked when they feel tender but not soggy – you don’t want them to collapse on the plate, but if they do, just throw on more chocolate sauce and ice cream! leave to cool in the saucepan.
For the chocolate sauce – break your chocolate into small pieces. I buy a 200g block of chocolate and attack it with a rolling pin while it’s still wrapped – it’s surprisngly therapeautic. Anyways, pop your chocolate, coffee and sugar into a thick bottomed saucepan and melt over a low heat, stirring every so often. Then pour in the cream and keep stirring. When hot pour it into a jug for serving.
If you’re serving your pear whole, set it on a plate, drizzle over the chocolate sauce, and add your scoop of ice cream. If you’re serving your pears in halves (or using tinned pears), place the pears in your dish, add the ice cream and drizzle over the sauce. Just make sure you leave the jug of sauce on the table for people to help themselves to more.
(The sauce also stores in the fridge for a few days and reheats ok – just put what you need into a microwave safe container and zap it for 15 seconds.)