Sometimes great dishes are named after the chefs who create them, like Caesar Salad, or the place where they are served, like Waldorf salad, but often they are named for people that the chef wants to impress or who impress the chef. Desserts are often named after women because sugar-and-spice and all that sexist stuff, but who can object to these sweet treats?
The great chef Escoffier created this dessert for his friend Nellie Melba, the Australian opera singer. Nellie loved ice cream but feared that the frozen dessert would damage her vocal cords. Escoffier added peaches to insulate the effect so that Dame Melba could eat ice cream without fear. The first Peach Melba was served in a huge block of ice carved in the shape of a swan to commemorate Dame Melba’s performance in Wagner’s Lohengrin. The raspberry sauce was added in version 2.o.
Nellie seems to have been quite a hypochondriac. At one point, when she was feeling sickly and off her feed, Escoffier invented a dry sweet bread for her called, yes, Melba Toast.
Ballerina Anna Pavlova toured New Zealand in 1926 and Australia a few years after. Ever since, the two nations have been fighting over who invented the dessert named after her. The earliest known recipe to be called Pavlova is from a 1927 New Zealand cookbook and is a cake-based trifle rather than a meringue-based cake. In 1934 Australian chef Bert Sachse came up with his version that he adapted from a New Zealand recipe published in 1929. Seems clear to me that some unnamed New Zealand chef (or anonymous housewife) came up with this beauty. Is it still Australian if it’s made with kiwi fruit?
Authentic recipes call for tempering the egg whites with vinegar and adding cornstarch for structure. New Zealanders can buy ready-made Pavlova shells.
Poires Belle Hélène:
Another dish created by Escoffier, this time to honor the 1864 Offenbach opera, La Belle Hélène and of course its star, Hortense Schneider, alias La Snédèr, whose prima donna attitude almost sank the performance. Maybe if she’d been easier to get along with this dessert would be called Poires Belle Hortense.
The original recipe calls for a candied violet garnish. These are usually replaced by almonds in modern cookery but one cook who tracked down the candy flowers notes:
I could have lived without them had they not been available, but aesthetically I would have been sorry to loose that Victorian, old-fashioned, garden-flower feel which so complimented the rest of the dessert.
But: pears poached in syrup, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce — flowers if you’ve got ‘em but if not, who can complain?