How to Make Cherry Clafoutis, a Dessert so Elegant, Your Guests Won't Know How Easy it is

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An elegant dessert that belies its simplicity. [Photographs: Daniel Gritzer]

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You know what's satisfying? Successfully cooking a dish so complicated that you achieve legendary status in the minds of your dinner guests. Know what's even more satisfying? Getting that same level of recognition for a dish that's ridiculously easy. With a cherry clafoutis, that's exactly what'll happen.

Whether it's the fancy French name or its undeniable beauty fresh from the oven, a clafoutis is a dessert that's guaranteed to impress and please. Its simplicity can't be overstated: Pour a simple batter made from egg, milk, sugar, and flour over cherries, bake, and serve. Think of it as a cross between a Dutch baby or popover and flan with fruit embedded in it.

Traditionally, clafoutis is made with cherries, as here, though you can substitute other tender fruits like apricots, plums, figs, or berries. Years ago, when I worked on a farm in Burgundy, France, we'd make them all the time with plums, though Wikipedia tells me that if made with anything other than cherries, the dish should be called a flaugnarde. No one on the farm I was on knew this, but then again we were in Burgundy, not Limousin, the home region of clafoutis, so maybe they were just less informed on the proper nomenclature of baked fruit-pancake desserts.

For my recipe, I wanted to examine a few variables with the batter and fruit.

In the case of the batter, I noticed some variation in many recipes on the egg and sugar quantities relative to the milk and flour, which tend to stay more consistent. I whipped up a few sample batters with varying levels of egg (one, two, and three eggs per cup of milk and half cup of flour) and sugar (two, three, and four tablespoons of sugar per that same cup of milk and half cup of flour).

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Clockwise from bottom left: 1 egg per cup of milk; 2 eggs per cup of milk; 3 eggs per cup of milk; 4 tablespoons sugar per cup of milk; 3 tablespoons sugar per cup of milk; 2 tablespoons sugar per cup of milk.

I baked them all side-by-side in a greased muffin tin in a 350°F oven. What I found was that, as the egg went up, the batter rose more and more, which makes sense since air bubbles within the eggs expand when heated (an effect that's even more exaggerated in the case of souffle thanks to even airier beaten egg whites). Clafoutis, though, isn't meant to be a risen dessert like souffle, and in fact it deflates almost instantly when removed from the oven, so getting maximum rise isn't critical. More important is texture and flavor. My preference was for two eggs per cup of milk and half cup of flour, which was just eggy enough without tasting like a full-on baked custard.

I had a similar feeling about the sugar: The middle option, three tablespoons per cup of milk and half cup of flour was just sweet enough. That said, the differences in both egg and sugar quantity were subtle enough that you should feel free to adjust to your own taste. Want it sweeter, especially if you're using tart fruit like raspberries? Add another tablespoon of sugar. Prefer the clafoutis more custardy? Crack another egg into the batter. You won't hurt it.

I also tested batters with half-and-half instead of milk, but didn't find enough of a difference to warrant buying half-and-half, especially with melted butter added. (As Betty Botter knows, batter with butter—preferably better butter, not bitter butter—is better.) The butter helped create crisper edges than the versions without.

For my fruit test, the main thing I wanted to find out was whether it was worth keeping the cherries whole or not.

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A lot of recipes call for whole pit-in cherries, since it's said the pits add a slight bitter-almond flavor to the dessert. I made mini-clafoutis with both pitted and whole cherries to decide for myself.

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Top left, with butter; bottom left, without butter. Top center, with milk; bottom center, with half and half. Top right, pitted cherry; bottom right, whole cherry.

In my small versions, I didn't taste a noticeable difference between the two, though it's entirely possible a larger clafoutis with many more whole cherries would take on that bitter almond aroma. Still, I ended up opting for pitted cherries, since the ease of eating a slice of this without having to keep spitting out little stones was worth more to me than any small flavor gain. It's even more true since I'm adding vanilla and giving the option of adding some kirsch (cherry brandy) too, which really amps up the flavor of the dessert. By the way, this recipe uses sweet cherries, not sour ones.

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To make the clafoutis itself, start by putting your fruit in a baking vessel. It can be a pie plate, a tart pan, a baking dish, or even a cast iron skillet like I'm using here.

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Then pour the batter on top.

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It goes in the oven until puffed and browned; a knife or cake tester inserted into the center should come out clean. That takes a little less than an hour at 350°F usually.

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Let the clafoutis cool slightly, then serve it sprinkled with powdered sugar. Some whipped cream on top is not required, but sure is nice. One extra tip: If you want to impress your guests even more, beat the cream by hand with a whisk. I can't tell you how many times people have flipped out when they've seen me do it, which is just hilarious because it takes absolutely no skill at all.

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