Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Home Cooking - Cherry Cheer

Why is it that fresh fruits are so expensive? :( I utterly adore them, but the ever-rising prices make it hard for me to purchase them, much less stuff them into recipes where they lose their individual brillance, crisp juice, and full firmness due to exposure to high temperature cooking.

I've had a craving for this sophisticated-but-simple Cherry Clafoutis ever since reading about it in the June Food and Wine issue, so when I found frozen, pre-pitted (score!) cherries at Trader Joes, I knew I had to try it out.

This turned out to be pretty much what I expected it to be: a homey, not overly-sweet, but casually elegant dessert. One that would be perfect served in the French countryside, but similarly enjoyable while illuminated by candlelight in a not-so-rustic neighborhood. To my delight, my place also smelled exactly like a French patisserie after making this, which I attribute to the magic of egg, butter, and caramelized sugar proudly puffing up in my oven. Two tips to distinguish this clafoutis are 1) letting the batter sit for at least and hour and 2) not adding any sugar to the egg-milk batter, which weighs it down and prevents it from puffing up as much while baking (although the cake deflates as it cools down anyway).

Sweet Cherry Clafoutis

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours

Most chefs in France's Limousin region say that this creamy cake tastes best made with unpitted cherries. If this is too rustic for you, pit the cherries, roll them in sugar and freeze them; the frozen sugar grains seal the fruit, so juice doesn't stain the batter. Purists insist on local black cherries, but I think you can use any bold-flavored fruit, like apricots or plums.

1 pound sweet cherries, pitted and patted dry with paper towels
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup flour, plus more for dusting
Pinch of salt
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the dish
2 tablespoons Cognac or brandy (I used a combination of rum and amaretto instead)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Confectioners' sugar for dusting


In a bowl, toss the cherries with 3 tablespoons of the granulated sugar and the lemon zest. Spread the cherries out on a baking sheet and freeze for 1 1/2 hours.
Meanwhile, in another bowl, whisk the 1/2 cup flour and salt. Whisk in the eggs. In a small saucepan, heat 1/2 cup of the milk with 3 tablespoons of the butter until the butter melts. Whisk the warm milk into the flour mixture just until smooth. Whisk in the remaining 1 1/2 cups of milk. Add the Cognac and vanilla, cover and let rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 425°. Butter a 9 1/2-inch deep-dish pie plate and dust with flour. Spread the cherries in a single layer in the pie plate, adding any sugar from the baking sheet to the cherries. Whisk the batter again and pour it over the cherries.

Bake the clafoutis just above the center of the oven for 20 minutes, or until the top is just set and golden. Top with the remaining 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon of butter. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to a rack to cool. Dust with confectioners' sugar, cut into wedges and serve.

Happily, I think that frozen cherries work just as well as their fresh counterparts! Besides, they were going to be frozen anyway... I was a bit more generous with the vanilla extract, sugar, and alcohol (purely by accident) than the recipe called for (I think, at least; I just poured instead of measuring), and the results didn't seem to suffer.

I really had no idea how this was going to turn out, as I've never seen a clafoutis before, much less heard of one, so I was a bit surprised to find that the dense flour in the batter sank to the bottom during the baking period, to form a toothy, chewy-soft 'crust' that rather reminded me of baked mochi. The remaining egg-milk (I used nonfat, so this is a pretty healthy dessert!) suspension yielded a mildly eggy, quite soft custard. (Oops, I just realized that perhaps my heavy hand with the rum could have been the reason for that.)

Dessert by candlelight... for my all-purpose guinea pigs, my parents. :o)


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