I’ve always tried to follow the advice my mother gave me a long time ago about dinner party menus: “Your guests, especially the men, will always remember the dessert.”
I’ve never been much of a pastry chef, but I do love to make a good fruit-based dessert, be it a tart, sorbet or crumble. And when I discovered the French dessert called clafoutis (also spelled clafouti), I really hit pay dirt.
A clafoutis is described by Julia Child as a fruit-filled flan. I call it a cross between a flan and a pancake. In the Limousin region of central France, where the dish comes from, it is considered a black cherry cake.
The word derives from the local dialect word clafir, which means “to fill.” A dish is filled with fruit, a pancake-like batter is poured over the top and the mixture is baked until golden and firm, then sprinkled with powdered sugar. It is usually served warm.
In France, the clafoutis is traditionally made with cherries and associated with cherry season. Cherries do make a marvelous clafoutis, but many other fruits can be used.
The French also consider the clafoutis a country dessert, but when you make it in a fluted ceramic clafoutis mold or tart dish, it looks like a city dish to me, with all the panache of a fruit tart but none of the hassle that goes with making a crust.
It’s the custom in France to make cherry clafoutis with unpitted cherries. The pits are thought to add flavor to the batter. Also, unpitted cherries don’t bleed into the batter.
Even better, I’ve observed that when the dish is made with unpitted cherries, people eat dessert slowly, savoring each bite, leaving the pits on the plate as if eating a bowl of fresh ripe cherries.
Of course, you must remember to tell your guests that the cherries have not been pitted, and if young children will be eating this, you might want to dispense with tradition.
The batter for clafoutis is a straightforward mixture of flour, sugar (not too much), eggs and milk, seasoned with vanilla bean. In the following recipes I give the option of using pure vanilla extract, but I really recommend the beans, both for their perfume and for the pretty way in which they speckle the batter.
I often substitute yogurt for part of the milk in my clafoutis; this is not traditional, but I like the tang it gives the batter.
For most clafoutis, I marinate the fruit in a brandy or liqueur and sugar and substitute the marinade for some of the milk or yogurt.
Although clafoutis are traditionally served warm, you can make this dessert hours ahead and warm it in a low oven just before serving. It will collapse slightly, but it will still look great.
As for the filling, you have many fruits to choose from, depending on the season. Cherries are a must during their short stay. In the fall and winter, pears are a favorite. Apricots, plums and figs also work well.
Just be careful not to choose fruit that is so soft that it falls apart during baking. Strawberries will do this, sad to say. So will over-ripe apricots, but firm apricots work just fine. On the other hand, if apples are used, they must be cooked first, just a bit, so that they soften properly.
A clafoutis is one of the few baked desserts that lends itself to low-fat versions. No butter is required, and I have made delicious renditions using nonfat yogurt instead of the milk (or creme frai^che or cream) that traditional recipes call for. A minimal amount of sugar is called for even in classic clafoutis, and three eggs are all you need. This dessert is really about fruit.