Life After Chocolate

June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

There was a birthday dinner, several years ago now, where I ordered a dessert that I recall as arriving in the shape of a teardrop and comprising a chocolate mousse enclosed in a crisp chocolate shell and possibly even sitting on a base of chocolate sponge. It wasn’t my birthday and Ollie, indignant at his beautiful but clearly inferior fruit crumble or similar, invoked two new statutes there and then: the birthday rule, which means that the celebrant is allowed to commandeer any part of a birthday meal should it be to his or her preference; and the chocolate rule, which states that if there is a chocolate dessert option on a menu, it should take precedence over other options. The birthday rule is still going strong but it’s fair to say that both of us, chocoholics though we remain, have loosened up a lot on the latter rubric. Nowadays I more often seek out desserts where fruit is the star and I prefer my chocolate in purer forms, separate from meals: a couple of squares of 70% as an afternoon pick-me-up, a mug of decadent, warming Venezuelan-spiced hot chocolate, perfectly petite fondant-filled chocolates while watching afternoon black and white movies (especially when gifted from somewhere like Burdick’s – thank you Pablo!).
When it comes to after-dinner treats, it might just be that the fruits of California are too difficult to resist. Almost four years into West Coast life and I’ve found the seasonal rhythm that our weather denies through the markets. Late spring is characterized not only by abundant strawberries and rhubarb but the build of anticipation for sweet, juicy summer peaches and plums, pluots, apriums and every other combination possible. And when cherries recently hit the stands I scooped them up by the bagful, knowing their availability to be ephemeral and all the more sweet for that. In our house there is only really one destination for cherries, other than straight from the bag, as they come: the elegant clafoutis, where the deep garnet gems are cradled in a vanilla-flecked custard, baked until it puffs softly. I’ve tried many clafoutis recipes and have never had a failure, so simple is the dish, but this year I have fallen hard for the version from Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson’s Tartine. This is hardly surprising since the bread pudding with seasonal fruits that is a constant at their Mission cafe is pretty much my favourite thing to eat in the whole city and features the same caramelized custard flavours that distinguish their clafoutis from the rest. The trick is the addition of a sprinkling of sugar once the custard is almost baked and then a final blast in a super-hot oven to brown the sugars. The recipe yields a pretty sizable dessert, which makes it perfect for entertaining: it’s also, in my opinion, much nicer at room temperature than hot which means you can make it ahead of a dinner with minimal stress. If you have leftovers, it’s also pretty fine at breakfast time. This year, so far, there have been no leftovers.

Cherry Clafoutis
Adapted from Tartine by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson

Yields around 8 servings (i.e. 4 plus seconds)

2 cups (500ml) whole milk
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
pinch of salt
3 large eggs
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp (50g) plain flour
2 cups cherries, pitted* (about 1lb or 450g unpitted weight; 13oz or 380g pitted weight)
2 tbsp sugar (50g) for topping

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F and lightly butter a 25cm/10inch ceramic quiche mold or pie dish. Spread the halved cherries evenly across the base of the dish.
Combine the milk, sugar, vanilla seeds and salt in a small saucepan. Place over a medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar until the mix is just under a boil.
While the milk mixture is heating, whisk the eggs and flour together in a heatproof bowl until smooth.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. You are going to combine the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture and you have to do this very gradually to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Start off by tempering the egg mix by adding a very small amount of the hot milk, whisking constantly as you do so. Once combined, add a small ladleful of milk, whisking all the time. Continue to add the milk to the eggs by the ladleful until all the milk mix is added and you have a smooth custard.
Pour the mixture over the cherries in the prepared dish. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the custard is just set in the middle and slightly puffed and browned around the outside. Remove the clafoutis from the oven and increase the temperature to 260C/500F. Evenly sprinkle the sugar over the top of the clafoutis. Return to the oven for 5-10 minutes to caramelize the sugar – keep a close eye on it as it will darken quickly.
Let the clafoutis cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving. I like my clafoutis lukewarm or at room temperature. You can also refrigerate it once cool and serve the next day – just bring it back to room temperature before serving.

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