Pears baked in paper with a gooey chocolate filling...
I love food baked in a rustling paper parcel because opening one up is like unwrapping a present. And these paper-wrapped pears certainly smell like Christmas when you unfurl them. This is a dead-easy, quick recipe that can be made well in advance - even the day before. What's more, you can bake them, put them to one side, and then pop them back in the oven - the microwave oven works well too - for a few minutes to heat through just before you serve them.
Do use unblemished, crisp, firm (but not rock-hard) pears for this dish. I used forelles, but I think this would work just as well with Packhams, golden pears or bon chretiens.
I know it's an extravagance to use a whole vanilla pod for each pear, but you can recycle the pods by drying them out on a sunny windowsill. Use them for the next batch of pears you make, or to flavour a jar of caster sugar.
If you can't afford a vanilla pod per pear, scrape the seeds out of a single split pod and mix them with the softened butter before you stuff the pears.
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If you're going to bake these right away, preheat the oven to 170 ºC. Cut out six circles of greaseproof baking paper (or parchment paper) each the size of a large dinner plate. The best way to do this is to put a plate face-down on the paper and swiftly cut around it with a sharp craft knife.
Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the juice of half a lemon. Peel the pears using a potato peeler and drop them immediately into the lemony water. When all the pears are peeled, use an apple corer to remove the cores and stalks (take the entire core out, so the chocolate can run out as it melts).. Trim the base of each pear so it stands up upright. Put the pears back into the water to prevent them from browning.
Put a circle of baking paper on the counter and stand a pear on it. Into the cavity place, in this order, two or three squares of chocolate broken into small pieces, half a teaspoon of butter, and a teaspoon of sugar.
Push a vanilla pod into the cavity, allowing its end to protrude like a pear stalk. Sprinkle two more teaspoons of sugar and a few drops of lemon juice over the outside of the pear. Gather up the edges of the circle to form a parcel and secure with a piece of damp raffia (or string) tied just above the top of the pear. Repeat with the remaining pears.
Leave the pears to stand for 45 minutes. This isn't essential, but it will give the sugar time to dissolve on the surface of the pear. (At this point, you can put the parcels in the fridge and leave them there for up to 8 hours.)
Place the pears on a baking sheet and bake at 170ºC for 40-45 minutes, or until they are very soft but not collapsed.
Place each parcel into a shallow bowl and serve immediately, with whipped cream or custard.