I’m a little wary of spectacular French pastries, which often seem to be more style than substance. Given a choice, I’ll take a simple tart packed with plump fresh apricot halves over a chef’s multilayered chocolate creation any day. For me, flavor and texture count far more than glamorous looks in a dessert. Maybe that’s why I love clafoutis (pronounced CLAH-foo-TEE), the rustic dessert from the cherry-producing Limoges region in central France. When prepared just right, which takes a matter of minutes, the result is an irresistible combination—a golden, lightly crunchy crust and a creamy interior studded with juicy bursts of fruit.
To Limousins, clafoutis is synonymous with cherries, especially the tart black ones that grow there in late summer, but in the rest of France, people use the word “clafoutis” more loosely, probably because they want to eat clafoutis more often than just during the brief cherry season. I make it all year round with all sorts of fruit: apricots, pineapple, pears, fresh figs, even meltingly sweet prunes.
Clafoutis is deceptively straightforward. Really, it’s just a batter poured over fruit and then baked so it puffs up like a kind of sweet Yorkshire pudding. But like most simple things, attention to detail takes it from the ho-hum to the exceptional. I tried many versions before I was satisfied that my clafoutis was as moist and as flavorful as it could get. And though I know clafoutis will never be glamorous, I also wanted it to look beautiful in a homey way.
The fruit’s the star, so choose carefully and treat it right
Because a clafoutis can only be as good as its main ingredient, I use fruits at their prime. In spring, I choose sweet (never starchy) apricots, sometimes dotting them with raspberries for contrast. Of course, there are plump cherries—I stick to tradition and leave the pits in for the slight almond flavor they impart. In summer I’ve made it with red currants for an unusual scarlet variation: the berries burst, releasing their tart juice into the batter. Pears are perfect in fall, but they must be just ripe without being too soft and juicy. When the weather turns cold, I like fragrant pineapple or pruneaux d’Agen, those very soft and sweet French prunes.
Juicy fruits need special treatment. Cut fruits, such as apricots or plums, and extremely juicy ones like pineapple need special handling so they don’t make the batter soggy. A tip I learned when making tarts in cooking school was to place fruits cut side up so that some of their moisture evaporates in the heat of the oven. Another possibility is to bake the fruit alone for a few minutes, which dries it slightly, before adding it to the batter. Or you can caramelize it, as I do with pineapple, which stops it from releasing much more juice.
A little butter adds richness, gentle handling promotes a perfect puff
Many clafoutis recipes call for eggs, milk, and sometimes cream, but no butter. When developing the recipe for clafoutis with pineapple, I found that the butter-and-sugar caramel added moisture and depth of flavor to the batter. But I didn’t think of adding butter to other variations until I tasted a friend’s moist and utterly addictive clafoutis made with tart greengage plums. Her recipe held an invaluable tip: add a little melted butter to the batter, and then dot the top of the clafoutis with knobs of cold butter just before putting it in the oven so it melts as the clafoutis cooks.
You can adapt the batter to the fruit. I find that a rich, creamy batter works best with more acidic fruits like pineapple, while a lighter batter made with milk and cream or whole milk alone suits sweeter fruits such as figs or pears. I also like to flavor the batter with spices such as vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, or cardamom and add alcohol that complements the fruit: Poire William with pear, Armagnac with prunes, Calvados with apples, rum with pineapple. Figs are best, I think, when rolled in perfumed honey before placing them in the dish. Sometimes, with pears or prunes, I sprinkle sliced almonds on top for a decorative touch. But the embellishments should never overpower the fruit itself.
Mix the batter by hand—it’s quicker than using a machine. Some recipes suggest using a food processor or blender to make clafoutis. This works fine, but clafoutis is so very simple to make that I now think using any kind of electrical appliance only complicates matters. Be careful not to overmix the batter; as with any flour-based mixture, too much agitation can develop the gluten and make your clafoutis tough.
Use moderate heat for a more even rise. Clafoutis has an alarming habit of rising unevenly during cooking, with the edges puffing up first. I’ve found that it rises most evenly in a moderate oven, 350° to 375°F. The edges will still rise first, but they won’t be overcooked before the center has had a chance to puff up and turn golden as well. The clafoutis should reach a uniform height before you remove it from the oven, when it will fall—disappointing, but unavoidable. I tested the following recipes in an ordinary shallow 9-inch cake pan to show that any special equipment is entirely optional. But I think clafoutis is at its most appealing when baked in a deep porcelain pie dish.