The enthusiasm of the testers I recruited this week showed a strong correlation with the quality of their school food – some were sceptical of my ability to recreate the magic of large metal pans full of tinned fruit and margarine-rich sponge, while others were puzzled by why I’d bother in the first place.
When it comes to puddings, however, dinner ladies always know best, and this is an undeniable classic of the genre: a very superior sort of sugary stodge indeed. The perfumed sweetness of the pear, softer and less acidic than its seasonal partner the apple, is a lovely match for the bitterness of dark chocolate, making this a surefire crowdpleaser that falls somewhere on the effort scale between the delicate art of poaching pears and the happy simplicity of gorging yourself on the ripe fruit until the sticky juice runs down your chin.
Most recipes call for fresh fruit, with only Nigella Lawson suggesting tinned halves. Pears stand up pretty well to the canning treatment, but nevertheless, while they’re in season, I’d opt for the more intense flavour of the fresh kind. Make sure they’re fairly ripe – I try them with the bullet-like fruit sold in supermarket bags, which remains crunchy even after 20 minutes in the oven – but not dangerously so, because, like the recipe in The River Cottage Fruit Every Day book, I’m going to fry them briefly in butter and brown sugar first, to accentuate their natural sweetness. If you do find yourself with fruit that’s so ripe, it’s barely held in by its skin, it’s probably best to skip this step and instead paint the quarters with a little melted sugar and butter before baking (the same goes for tinned fruit).
My testers express a strong preference for smooth-fleshed varieties such as the buttery williams or comice, as opposed to the longer, grainier conference pear – the contrast in textures between fruit and sponge, slippery and fluffy, is simply more satisfying, though a grainier example wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for me. Nor, for that matter, is a bit of skin; all the recipes I try start by peeling the fruit, but leaving it on helps keep the fruit together in the pan, and the slight chewiness it brings with it is, for me, yet another texture to enjoy. Feel free to get out the peeler, if you prefer, though – after all, perfection comes in many forms.
This is, in essence, a cake rather than a pudding – River Cottage even bakes it in a cake tin – generally made with some variety of chocolate sponge. Both Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Lawson use the creaming method familiar from a classic Victoria sandwich, in which butter and sugar are beaten until fluffy with air, before eggs, flour and raising agents are folded in, while Bill Granger and the Waitrose website both begin with melted butter, which gives their puddings a denser, moister texture that’s more reminiscent of a brownie.
All, it must be confessed, go down very well, with Lawson’s recipe gaining points for school-dinners authenticity – “though it tastes nicer – what have you put it in?” Butter, obvs – but pudding to me suggests something rich and squidgy, so I’ve opted for the melting method, upped the cocoa powder and used soft brown sugar rather than caster for a damper, darker result. I’m also going to steal River Cottage’s idea of replacing some of the flour with ground almonds; the nutty flavour works well with both pears and chocolate, as well as adding moisture to the mixture.
… Or not
Rose Prince describes the chocolate paper pie in her Pocket Bakery book as an “unusual, very rich chocolate pudding with pears”, which seems a good enough excuse to try it out. It’s very much a dinner party dessert, an intense, dark chocolate ganache topped with pears and baked inside a cocoa pastry shell, and well worth the effort, if you’re hoping to impress. The ganache, in particular, can’t fail to please (though I’d suggest doubling the quantity of pastry, unless you’re as expert with a pin as Prince), but it’s not quite the homely pud I’m after here.
Flavourings and sauces
Lawson and Granger add vanilla extract to their batter and River Cottage fries the fruit with orange zest, all ingredients that pair brilliantly with both pears and chocolate, if you feel the need to add something else to the mix. The same goes for the coffee in Lawson’s sauce – every recipe, with the exception of Prince’s, includes a matching sauce: not chocolate custard, as at school, but silky affairs made with cream and melted chocolate in Lawson and River Cottage’s case, and cocoa, dark brown sugar and boiling water for Granger and Waitrose, whose puddings are “self-saucing”, aka gooey in the middle. But I’m aiming for a richer, denser sponge, so think such a sauce would be overkill on the chocolate front; plain cream or creme fraiche makes for a more satisfying contrast. That said, each to their own; others imply, as they lick the bowls clean, that they would have preferred “brown custard”.
Perfect chocolate and pear pudding
Prep 15 min
Cook 20 min
For the fruit (or use 2 tins of pears in juice)
6 relatively ripe, smooth-textured pears (eg williams or comice)
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp light brown sugar
For the cake
75g plain flour
50g ground almonds
100g soft light brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
150g butter, melted and left to cool slightly
Grease a 22cm square baking tin and heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6.
Core and cut the pears into quarters. Heat the butter and sugar in a large frying pan over a medium heat and, once melted and bubbling, add the pear slices (skip this stage if using tinned).
Fry on both sides for about four minutes, until lightly golden and slightly softened without being on the verge of collapse, and set aside.
Put the flour, almonds, cocoa powder, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk to combine.
Beat the eggs and milk into the melted butter, then stir this into the dry ingredients: you should now have a batter that drops easily from a spoon but doesn’t run off it, so add more milk if necessary.
Spoon into the prepared tin and arrange the pear slices on top. Pour over the buttery sugary juices from the pear pan, then transfer to the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
Serve warm, preferably with cold cream, creme fraiche or ice-cream.
• Chocolate and pear pudding: a nostalgic favourite from childhood or a waste of one of autumn’s finest assets? AIf you’re the latter camp, what do you prefer to do with these under-rated fruits instead? And if anyone has a good recipe for chocolate custard, please do pass it on.