I have been semi-obsessed with a certain dessert ever since I read “On Food and Cooking’s” chapter on fruit; in particular, when they discuss cherries, making mention of a baked dish that took advantage of the pits to extract extra flavor from the cherries. This dessert was Clafoutis, what at first seemed an eggy cake filled with whole cherries, though I’ve come to learn is so much more. For I’ve tried making this twice before, I came to learn the ‘batter’ for this is quite… unique. Not special or different or difficult, but there’s nothing quite in the realm of its structure ya know? It’s very custardy, but it’s thicker than flan and other egg-milk dishes; it’s definitely more batter-based, less eggy, than a quiche; thicker like a pancake batter, but with that smooth creamy consistency. Many related it similar to crepe batter but with more eggs. When you try it, you’ll know, but there’s really no other common custard to properly relate it to.
And this is made exclusively to be filled in a pan, covered layers of whole cherries or thick cuts of fruit, and baked until a golden, crispy layer has remained on top. I myself have yet to achieve this, and need to redeem myself with a third attempt here, for this project.
The name comes from clafotís or clafir, a term used in the Occitan language, which centered in the Southern France/Northern Spain region, meaning ‘to fill.’ During the 1800’s, the dish spread throughout the rest of France, but its origin of ‘identity’ is purely Limousin, which is situated in the southern-central area (and where the romance language was quite popular). This is the one that traditionally contains cherries; which is what any TRUE clafoutis should use, proved by the fact that any dish of the same batter using OTHER fruits is properly called a ‘flaugnarde.’ Despite the lack in specific origin, the Limousin are highly proud of this dish they’ve created; in fact, when L’Acadèmie Francais officially categorized it under as a sort of ‘fruit flan,’ well… let’s just say the people got rather pissed. So they ended up getting forced into changing it to “a cake with fruit.”
As with many dishes found in France, for something so simple as cherries with batter, getting it right can be quite the task. We’ll see if I’m finally up for it.
Chef’s Overdramatic Self-Centered Lecture Corner
You know, I just realized that I ended up listing this recipe’s ‘Lecture Corner’ in the same style as my OTHER French Recipe Posts! Since I’ve already finished writing it all and am too lazy to redo it, guess we’ll just pretend it’s structured different because this recipe is ‘special,’ haha.
Cherries: Small, tart ‘Griottes’ are the cherries of choice in France. No luck here, but they are easily substituted out with a simple Black Cherry, which gives that nice combo of sweet and tart for dessert use. But that’s not what we REALLY wanna talk about with cherries… what we REALLY wanna talk about is their pits. And yes, you must leave them in the cherries while they bake into the cake. Oh, you can pit them beforehand, but it will not taste as good… just like cheap, simple baked cherries in this custard, nothing more or nothing less.
For the seeds and pits of stone fruits, like cherries and apricots and plums, contain and enzyme which, besides producing EXTREMELY trace amounts of cyanide (which has sparked much issue towards the idea of using them in cooking/infusing, which is really useless considering the mass amount of things made from them that would need consumption to even feel ill), also produces the characteristic almond extract/marzipan aromas. In fact, it’s mainly stone fruit pits that are used to make these extracts. Cherries in particular also contain amygdalen, benzaldehyde and eugenol, compound/molecule essences of almond and clove. When heated, all of these aromas increase, expand, and flush throughout the cherry, and potentially anything next to it. Thus the flavor resulting in something like, say, a baked custard with whole cherries studded throughout is transformed into a wafting aromatic exploration of deep fruit and almond ambrosia. Or something like that.
Like blueberries in muffins or chocolate chips in banana bread, we also have to ask the question of how we add the fruit and batter. Does the fruit go in first, batter on top, or toss the fruit on top of the batter in hopes of getting some better elevation/distribution? Whether it actually works, I find I don’t necessarily care, as the thickness of the custard is relatively the same as the fruit layers, and I don’t see any danger in them sitting at the bottom for this. I’d say the use of making sure they’re a bit higher is to give a better top/presentation. Though, interesting note, I read Julia Child’s recipe for this, and a unique technique she offers is starting with just a thin layer of batter on the bottom, baking that until it’s mostly set, and THEN adding the cherries and rest of the batter. I am so NOT trying this, because again I don’t care and I don’t want to worry about a layer of over-cooked custard under my perfectly set batter, but it’s a fun one to consider. There’s a particular cake named after tree layers that uses the technique, but with a single thin layer of batter at a time.
To Booze or Not to Booze: There are a lot of clafoutis out there that make absolutely no mention of adding Kirsch, using just vanilla extract instead. Throw those formulae in the trash, because all TRUE clafoutis have kirsch. Every single time that I’ve read or heard one from any recipe that seemed old, classic, traditional, or in any way overly French, the classic Cherry Brandy or Liqueur is involved. This is either added to the batter, macerated in the cherries beforehand (along with some of the sugar), or a combo of the two. Myself, I’m going for the combo, since I want to infuse more of that deep cherry flavor into the fruit itself, make up for what don’t seem like the most ideal cherries to me, as well as use it as the flavor base of the cake itself. Kirschwasser is the name of the game of course, a good bottle that I still had enough left over for the cake AND shots afterward, with those beautifully developed-through-distillation flavors of cherries and bitter almond/marzipan, a treat from those aromatic pit compounds mentioned earlier that only TRUE cherry brandy will let you experience.
Note, if you don’t have access to a nice kirsch/wasser, any decent brandy (cognac/Armagnac preferred) will do, potentially even rum for a fun twist, ideally mixed with some cherry and/or almond liqueur for added flavor.
Pan: Firstly, low and wide is usually the key; one is looking for 2 cherry layers max quite often, baked into a large custard-cake. Usually done in one of those classic ceramic, large ramekin-y vessels. You know, the white ones with the curved outside that look all fancy. I have seen this cooked in a big cast iron pot as well, and I was very tempted to try it with mine… but the one I have is a bit Dutch Oven type, so much empty space and pan sides sticking up from the custard, it made me nervous. Plus I worried how long it would take to absorb the oven temperature vs a regular ceramic. I wanted to make sure that I got those browned effects, and both of these aspects seemed potentially counterproductive to that.
Milk: I read somewhere that, similar to crepe batter (which seriously this custard resembles so much doesn’t it?), many ‘masters’ or just old French cooks traditionally heat up the milk before adding. This should help develop some flavor with the eggs (gotta love those warm milk custardy flavors), and probably helps with starch gelatinization/integration even further. Or something on those lines (you know I’m too lazy for THAT kind of research).
In some recipes I’ve been finding after making this, I’ve found use of cream or half and half instead of milk. I put no preference over the choices, in fact I’d like to try it one day, but today I almost feel like milk, leave more flour for thickening and to develop that crusty edge I’m so desiring.
500g/18 oz Black Cherries, de-stemmed
3 Tb Kirsch or Kirschwasser
125g/4½ oz Flour
Pinch of Salt
300ml/1¼ cup Milk
- Toss Cherries (NOT pitted) with 1 Tb of Kirsch and 50g of Sugar, leave to sit and macerate (turning every so often) for at least 30 minutes
- Preheat oven to 350F
- Combine remaining sugar, Flour, and Salt in separate bowl
- Heat milk to a light scald on the stove, hot without simmering, and add along with the well beaten Eggs and remaining Kirsch to the flour mixture, whisking in a bit at a time until it turns into a smooth, thick batter
- Toss cherries into a wide, low, and very well-buttered casserole dish, evenly covering the bottom in a piled layer
- Pour over the batter so it comes close to the lip of the pan
- Transfer to oven, baking at LEAST 35-40 minutes, until the center is set, the edges have rise, and the top is colored with a light golden brown
- Remove, slicing and serving hot or, traditionally, leaving to cool until lukewarm, garnishing with a dust of powdered sugar
- Enjoy with some kirsch, and perhaps a dollop of whipped, iced, or other sweet cream garnish one has on hand
Okay, I think I finally got it how I want it! I was a bit worried too, since it didn’t have any of that browning or crustiness when I checked at the 40 minute mark. But cooked a bit longer and it started to develop, a little on top and around the sides with that beautiful lift! Still didn’t get that particular cakey-ness that I envisioned and hoped it would have, but this has officially shown me that, indeed, a proper clafoutis never will.
What it WILL get is a thick, firm but tender layer of custard with some crispy edges and tops on it. I’ll admit and say I think I may have cooked it a couple minutes longer than IDEAL, with more browned sides and bottom bits sticking to the pan than I thought (note to self, don’t judge by how much is on TOP), but still fully delicious. And the cherries… hot from the oven, popped into the mouth, super soft and with that almost floral burst of aromatics clearly containing an underlying almond/marzipan note, just like how it’s supposed to. Let me just say, all those people online who bitch about how the annoying purists leave the pits in is rather useless, saying to just add almond extract or purely ignore and just leave the cherries because ‘who wants to eat around a pit, waaaaahhhhh,’ don’t know crap about what they’re talking about. There’s a clear, elevated difference, and I’ve found no issue in letting the pit pop from its fleshy constraints in my mouth to be spit back on the plate or some side bowl. Not if it equals the aromatic extra experience that I’ve found here.
And I can see why many say this is best served lukewarm instead of hot, for the texture and the cherries, which release more of those deliciously fruity flavors. Though I still say there’s nothing better than something hot out of the oven, creamy and flavorful, with those heady pops of aromatic chemicals when chewing on those stone fruit. Either way, I am very happy and satisfied with the results. Something tells me I’ll be making this again (the mother seems quite intent about it).
There really is nothing better than a nice, chilled shotglass or snifter of Kirsch or Kirschwasser next to this. I mean, cherries and cherries, almond flavors with almond flavors (they both have it), you use it in the dish, and it just tastes damn good. Trust me, when you nail a clafoutis in such a way that makes you happy like this, there’s no better reward than a delicious bit of cherry brandy (assuming you’re the kind to drink good liquor straight, which I am).
To a similar note, something like an Amaretto, either chilled over ice or made into a cocktail (perhaps shaken with brandy?), would be another delicious choice. There are also plenty of emulsified ‘egg liqueurs’ (they’re basically more custardy cream liqueurs) like Advocat that would highlight the custardy flavors and textures.
And as for wine, I wish I could name something great from the Limousin region, but they sadly have very little wine industry nowadays (they used to, sadly, but it was devastated during a certain period of disease along with the rest of France and didn’t recover as well), so what they have, though delicious, is quite rare. I knew the name was familiar though, as the oak trees are famously used for some of the most prized barrels for aging wine and Cognac.
What I would definitely want to serve this with is a nice glass of bubbly, some simple and refreshing sparkling wine, perhaps a Cremant from some southern region just for fun. A Cremant de Alsace, perhaps a rose, from the region that borders France with Germany could have a certain cultural perfection, but I have a ‘Blanquette de Limoux’ which I’m saving for a certain savory dish that I wouldn’t mind playing around with here. It’s from the exact opposite region, the very southern border, but it should have a great fruity focus and a touch of sweetness. But the great combo of tart acids and frizzy bubbles should cut through the custard nicely, and those almost-toasty/yeasty flavors mixed with those almond notes… I like the idea.