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Of plums and panic
What I cook when I wake up with that doomsday feeling...
I woke up this morning with that feeling. A tightness in my chest. There are too many questions - big and small - swirling around in my head. New school for our son next year. New career direction for me. New moves for the family. Where is publishing going? Where is the world going? Do we want to follow or lead? How can we remain ourselves – admittedly quirky, weird, very possibly out of step – and live, and earn a living. Too many variables, not enough control. This is an old story for me. And I tend to paralyze. My husband, thank goodness, is a man of action. Last weekend he was feeling powerless (he’s a change the world kind of guy), so he changed a tiny piece of the world; he built us a bookshelf.
My angst tends to be less productive. Except in the kitchen. Cooking is how I self-soothe. If it’s a recipe I’ve made before, I can do it on autopilot. Let my mind wander. Listen to an audiobook. If it’s something new, the concentration required wipes the slate clean for an hour. Chopping, sifting and tasting take the place of worrying, wishing and waiting. So today I decided to meet myself halfway and make a new twist on an old favorite: Plum Clafoutis.
Clafoutis is most often made with the first cherries in late May or early June. It’s one of those homey early summer desserts, a sign of outdoor meals and weekend guests. Then it gets too hot to put anything in the oven for a few months. We live in Arles, in the South of France, and this year, like last year and the year before, it was above 90 degrees from the 15th of May until…yesterday.
Following the seasons isn’t just a chic, organic, theoretical thing in France. There’s no air conditioning. Not in the restaurants with their terraces open to the street. Not in our apartment. And though the thick stone walls of our 18th century building offer some protection, there would have to be a presidential decree to get me to roast a chicken in August. (I might roast some vegetables at midnight; It’s too hot to sleep anyway.)
All through the summer, we gorge ourselves on peaches, yogurt and muesli for breakfast, eat melon and cured ham for dinner, anything to limit time in front of a hot stove. I’m convinced that policy trickles down with the sweat - it gets a lot harder to be a country of climate change deniers when you’re on your 4th cold shower of the day.
So along with the plums and muscat grapes, the market this week offered a sense of autumn relief, and possibility. Right about now – the October bend in the road toward winter – is when real dessert, oven dessert, things that smell up the house with goodness dessert, comes back around.
Clafoutis is essentially an enriched crepe batter poured around fruit and baked in the oven. It’s a shade of classic French dessert: Replace the cream with milk, you get crepes. Add less flour, you get flan. A bit more, Far Breton. My clafoutis comes in somewhere just north of pudding territory: rich, creamy, but with enough structure to be cut and served in slices.
Autumn clafoutis is also my only excuse to buy plums. There are so many shades of plum at the market right now: green Mirabelles the size of marbles, dusky purple Quetch – and I don’t want to eat any of them. Or rather, I don’t want to bite into any of them. I’m very sensitive to texture in my food, and I often find raw plums…springy, like eating a juicy tennis ball. O, that this too too solid flesh would melt. Maybe Hamlet was desperate for an early exit, or maybe he just didn’t like raw plums.
But when cooked, plums transform, go cushy, like sinking into your favorite armchair. (In case you couldn’t tell, this is the time of year I start to mentally hibernate, staring longingly at stacks of books and comfy armchairs). Plums’ slight acidity pairs well with clafoutis’ rich custard base, and they hold their shape and color in the oven, so you get that satisfying, yet yielding, bite.
I’ve played around with my clafoutis recipe for years, and the addition I like the best is replacing most of the flour with almond meal. It gives the top a nice crisp texture, while the interior stays creamy. For the plum clafoutis, I’ve replaced the almond meal with ground hazelnuts. Hazelnuts add a nice autumn bass note, and vary it just enough from my classic clafoutis to make it feel special.
So I may not be changing the world, but at least today my panic was productive. Downright delicious, actually.
Butter and sugar (for tart mold)
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
¾ cup sugar
1 cup light whipping cream (30 percent milk fat)
2 tablespoons rum
¼ cup flour
1 cup almond meal, or ground hazelnuts (To make your own ground hazelnuts, whizz some toasted hazelnuts in the food processor with 2 tbsp of the sugar until you get a fine powder. Remember to subtract the sugar from your ¾ cup!)
1⅛ cups milk
1 pound plums, pitted and cut into quarters
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Butter and sugar a 10-inch ceramic tart mold. (i.e. rub the mold all over with butter and sprinkle with sugar, tapping out the excess.)
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, and sugar until they are a light lemon yellow. Gradually add the cream and the rum; whisk to combine. In a small bowl, combine flour and almond or hazelnut meal. Add to the egg mixture; whisk thoroughly to combine. Slowly whisk in milk until thoroughly combined.
Add the plums to the bottom of the mold. Give the batter a final whisk and pour it around the fruit. Bake for 40 minutes, until well browned and set (but a bit wobbly) in the center. You can serve clafoutis warm, room temperature or cold. I like the texture is best when it’s had time to set a bit in the fridge – I’m a big fan of leftover clafoutis for breakfast. Or make the night before to serve at brunch or bring to a potluck. Bon appétit!
Q: What’s your favorite culinary coping mechanism? I’m always so curious about other people’s comfort food…
Know someone who loves travel, food, dancing in the of aisles of the supermarket?
If you haven’t read the Forever in France Intro Post, do take a look. It tells you why I’m here and what’s to come!