This is the season of fresh fruit, and northern Michigan is the place to get the best. When you and yours tire of fresh, unadorned raspberries, cherries, peaches, pears, apples and plums you’ll want to offer them in more enticing ways. Although summer fruit pies, cakes, crisps, crumbles, cobblers and pandowdys are heavenly, they can be a task if you make them only a few times a year.
Summer fruit demands simple preparation to keep its juicy, bright flavor intact. Clafoutis (kla-foo-TEE) is the perfect alternative. This dessert has the distracted summer cook in mind: it is neither difficult nor time-consuming and it requires few ingredients.
Some might consider clafoutis just a lazy cook’s way to pie or cake, but it is a truly luscious comfort food complete with a French pedigree. Traditionally made with unpitted black or tart cherries, clafoutis starts with an eggy batter, which the cook pours over fruit arranged in a buttered and floured dish. It bakes into a light, custardy confection with a consistency somewhere between pudding, pancake and soufflé.
French cooks serve clafoutis warm and dusted with powdered sugar, and yup, they don’t pit the cherries. The pits add an enticing almond flavor when baked. (Your dentist might suggest almond extract.)
Clafoutis originated in a region in south-central France called Limousin. Its name comes from the Occitan word “clafir,” meaning “to fill.” So popular was it “to fill” a dish with fruit and batter, that by the 19th century, clafoutis’ renown had spread from Limousin to other regions of France and bordering countries.
Because of its simplicity this dish begs to be improvised upon. The French are purists for place so when other regions began to use fruit like peaches, blueberries, pears, apples, mango and prunes in their clafoutis, they christened non-cherry clafoutis a “flaugnarde.”
It is uncertain who invented clafoutis, but it was most probably the creation of a hurried and harried home cook with a glut of cherries. The French are tied to the land and devoted to fine eating. Their diet takes its meaning and direction from locally abundant food and centuries-old, time-tested ancestral cooking that remains simple and seasonal, with quality, flavor and freshness all-important.
The country, or pays, and its soil, or terroir, gave France natural advantages: France has more fertile soil in a temperate climate than anywhere in Europe. Quick, efficient distribution and food cultivated for flavor — not shelf life — harvested at peak, provide a remarkable, superior variety of food and beverages. In short, the French have great reverence and respect for food and the good sense to eat it in season at its freshest.
Maurice Edmond Sailland (pen name Curnonsky), noted that to create a national culinary habit a country must have a “haute cuisine” — a grand gastronomy of chefs cooking for king, court, or restaurant; a “cuisine bourgeois” — the cooking of city folk with access to high-quality ingredients; and a “cuisine paysan” — a rustic country cooking of women (cuisine de femme) and artisans who grow and harvest their own food.
France excels in all three. It is from the rustic country cooking that we are gifted with simple but fresh and vital dishes like clafoutis.
Prepare a clafoutis or flaugnarde this season and you’ll experience it for yourself.
A bobby pin makes a superior cherry pitter. Thawed and drained frozen fruit is suitable. You may substitute 1/4 cup of the drained fruit juice for milk; stir in before baking.
Serves 6 to 8
1/3 c. sugar
3 large eggs
2/3 c. unbleached or all-purpose white flour
1/8 t. salt
3/4 c. whole milk
1 t. vanilla or almond extract
Butter for baking dish
1-1/4 lb. fresh tart or sweet cherries, rinsed, dried and pitted, about 3 c.
1/4 c. confectioners’ sugar, for topping
Whisk sugar and eggs in a medium bowl until light and frothy, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in flour and salt with whisk until batter is smooth.
Do not overbeat. Stir in milk and extract. Set batter aside for 30 minutes to rest.
Preheat oven to 375˚F. Butter and flour an 9-inch round baking dish. Tap out excess flour. Drain excess liquid from cherries and spread in the dish. Set aside.
Give the batter a stir, and pour it over the cherries. Place dish in oven and bake clafoutis until browned, puffed and set, 50 to 60 minutes. A sharp knife should come out clean when inserted. Cool clafoutis until just warm. Dust with confectioners’ sugar. Serve warm.
Instead of (or in addition to) vanilla use 1 tablespoon Kirsch, Calvados or cognac.
Instead of cherries use 1-1/4 pounds (3 cups) other fruit. Slice firm fruit like peeled mangos, peeled pears, plums, apricots and peeled apples, sauté in butter until just tender; cool before spreading on the bottom of the baking dish.