Just like that, it seems I wrote my last blog post and then half a year flew by! There were so many times I wanted to write, but got pulled in different directions, or distracted by different "shiny objects." It's such a strange time with things simultaneously opening up and tightening down. I think we're all feeling the push and pull; trying to figure out the new paradigm, the new normal, as we balance our fears of going out alongside fears of missing out. We're longing for excitement and also for reassurance.
Time moves so quickly; blink and it passes by. That's why I find such comfort in nature and in the reassurance that I find in holidays and the touchstones of the changing seasons. As we bid this long summer holiday weekend goodbye, my mind goes back to July, when I first intended to share this recipe with you. I thought I'd share it now before the last of the delicious summer fruits give way to the autumn flavors. It also seems to me that a delicious custardy tart is comforting, while this recipe may also be new to you.
LESSONS FROM FRANCE
When I was a student in Paris, a few of my school chums and I took advantage of some extra curricular classes offered to foreign students, as a novel way to practice our French. My favorite was a series of cooking lessons, led by Mademoiselle Claudine, a stylish enterpreneuse, who taught out of her tiny Parisian apartment with it's even tinier kitchen. Part of the delight of the class was seeing what outfit Mlle Claudine would be wearing while cooking. Inevitably it was something black and trendy with billowing sleeves or fuzzy fabric, or dangling scarves and worn with the highest of heels. She looked like a fashion model on her way to a nightclub and not like the domestic type. She would greet you at the door, batting her long eyelashes and flashing a dazzling smile, then whisk you in to the kitchen where you'd be given an apron and a glass of wine along with a recipe for the dishes being prepared that evening and the directive to work together and only speak French.
Mademoiselle took cooking very seriously. She was adamant about how things should be prepared and strictly followed the philosophy of Roger Vergé, who revolutionized French cooking when he introduced La Nouvelle Cuisine, a style of cooking equated with simple, light, fresh, clean, organic flavors and ingredients, rather than the traditional heavy creams and sauces. (Incidentally, this cooking philosophy became the basis for Alice Water's California cuisine and all the fresh, healthy food movements since.) Vergé's cookbook La Cuisine du Soleil was her cooking bible and our textbook. Mlle Claudine would firmly correct our French and our cooking skills. Cooking was an art and a pleasure, not to be rushed. I learned better than to arrive hungry, because it would be hours before we finally ate.
Everything had to look beautiful, as well as taste delicious. She would select only the finest and freshest ingredients from the nearby open air market, The colors and delicious aromas of the fresh ingredients filled her tiny apartment. We were taught to respect each ingredient and honor it individually. Cooking was spiritual. Sacrifices had been made by the farmer, the artisans and the animal before the food ever reached your plate. We were advised to buy essentials from the green grocer, butcher, fishmonger, boulangerie, fromagerie and other specialty shops where people knew their wares and had developed their craft. Accordingly, gratitude was in order and nothing was to be squandered. For example, less attractive fruits and vegetables were puréed and used as sauces; old bread was made into bread crumbs and fish heads and bones were made into stock - -which keenly interested Balou, the Burmese cat who politely watched from a distance. He knew his mistress loved him, but stayed clear of her busy kitchen. Mademoiselle was demanding when it came down to the food prep: Seeds were to be removed from tomatoes; mushrooms were peeled and leeks were to be cut into precise little battonettes (or fine sticks); lettuce was to be gently washed and then each leaf was hand dried and torn; chickens were inspected and any remaining pin feathers were carefully removed with a tweezer; a special wine thermometer ensured the wine was served at the perfect temperature to release it's full-bodied flavor; herbs were bundled into little bouquets and sea salt crystals were hammered into a fine powder. Everything was prepared according to mise en place, meaning all food was cleaned, prepped, sliced and measured before the cooking even began.
Learning the measurement system was a little challenging and at times, it seemed more akin to a chemistry class. Depending on the ingredients, we would sometimes use a kitchen scale, or a special Verutile, a useful French measuring glass that gave precision measurements for dry and wet ingredients as well as specific pantry staples, like rice, flour, tapioca, cacao, sugar and the like. She embraced healthy eating and she even embraced the ingredients. Whenever she would create a ball of pâte brisée (pastry dough), she would gently pat it into shape, look at it with her big doe eyes and batting her eyelashes declare "Je t'aime" then she'd admire the pâte, lovingly kiss it and set it down. As if suddenly remembering there were others in the room, she'd glance around, wink at us and then giggle. Soon the room was filled with more laughter and perhaps another round of wine would be poured. Meanwhile, Balou, the cat would curiously watch the activity spilling out from the small kitchen from his perch atop the armchair in the living room. We'd start class at 6 PM and leave Claudine's kitchen happy, full and tipsy round about midnight, leaving us plenty of time to catch the last Métro home.
On our last night of class, she wistfully handed us some additional recipes that she wanted us to have, even though we didn't have a chance to prepare them in her cooking workshop. One of these was a recipe for Clafouti, a sort of custard fruit tart originating in Limousin. It's a curious word so I looked it up. The name comes from the verb clafir, meaning to fill (in this case with fruit). Mademoiselle Claudine had written that each town in the region has it's own version -- some add Armagnac; some add almonds slivers or almond extract; some don't use honey; some sprinkle it with powdered sugar after it comes out of the oven, some don't; some use cornstarch, some use tapioca, some don't; some use grapes, some use strawberries, mostly people use cherries-- basically each family has their own recipe. I came across Mlle Claudine's recipe just before Bastille Day and finally all these years later I gave it a try. I don't know how authentic it was, but I can tell you that it was simple, fresh and delicious. With it's custardy texture and fresh fruits, it seemed a perfect blend of traditional French cooking and la nouvelle cuisine and as easy to make as a pancake. Before the seasonal summer fruits leave the markets, I'm definitely going to try making another. Here's the recipe, minus all the weighing. Even so, before you place it in the oven, to honor the ingredients, you may want to thank the clafouti and tell it "Je t'aime." One thing I learned from Claudine is that when cooking, love is always the best secret ingredient.
1.5lbs of pitted and sliced cherries
2 tsp. heated honey
2 tablespoons tapioca or cornstarch
Optional filling ingredients
1 - 2 tsp almond extract or Armagnac (to preference)
Almond slivers to taste
1 cup milk
3/4 c flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
pinch of salt
4 tbsp butter
1) Preheat the oven to 350F
2) Generously grease a gratin dish or a baking dish with butter.
3) Gently toss the cherries with the warm honey; 2 tablespoons of tapioca or cornstarch (to absorb the fruit juices), plus the optional almond extract or Armagnac. Set aside.
4) Gently melt the 4 tbsp of butter and set aside.
5) Crack 6 eggs into a blender and whirl them. Add the milk, flour, granulated sugar, vanilla and salt, then whirl for another 15 seconds. Add the melted butter and whirl for another 15 seconds. (The mixture will be very liquid.)
6) Pour mixture into the gratin dish. If desired, evenly add the almond slivers to the batter by hand, then repeat, the process evenly placing the fruit in the batter.
7) Bake until puffed, golden brown and set in the center. About 50 minutes.
8) If desired, dust with powdered sugar and serve warm.
Bon Appétit! If you make this, I'd love to see it. kindly post a picture with the hashtag #HomeAndYonder.