When was the last time you ate some cake, or a muffin, or a brownie, or any other sweet treat after a meal? Not too long ago huh? And I bet you didn't dwell too much on it either. Well clafoutis is a dessert that harks back to a time when a sweet after the meal was not simply a forgone conclusion, but was instead a rare and deified treat, one to make the whole family gather round with wide-eyed and toothy attention.
Clafoutis recalls a time when not all French country households had an oven, and many less fortunate peasants would once a week rely on a communal oven - usually the dying embers of the town bakery oven - to cook a special meal. In the Limousin region of South West France, clafoutis was often the last thing to come out of these ovens on a Sunday afternoon - and I daresay, perhaps the most anticipated.
So what exactly is clafoutis? The thrifty housewives of Limousin took local cherries, piled them into earthenware baking dishes, and then smothered them with a sweet and rich batter. This mess was baked in roastingly hot oven until the batter puffed up, and was lightly golden and cakey. Meanwhile the cherries softened, and bled their juices into the aromatic treat. And yet, they still broke the surface, leaving red dots as harbingers of the delights to come. It is truly one of the more spectacular desserts that provincial French housewives have left us.
Over time, clafoutis spread to other regions of South Western France, such as Toulouse, the Cévennes and the Auvergne - however in the last case, the dish is more well known as millard. The most antiquated clafoutis recipes ask for tiny, wild black cherries known as les merises, but nowadays the more common (in France anyway) girottes cherries are used. Interestingly, there was somewhat of a fracas when L'Académie française referred to clafoutis as "sort of a fruit flan". The good citizens of Limoges took great offence at this slight, and subsequently the official definition was changed to "cake with black cherries", which I see as only a minor improvement. The word clafoutis comes from the local Limousin dialect, clafir - a verb roughly meaning "to fill".
All this historical fancifulness is well and good, but by now I'm guessing that all you really want is to eat some clafoutis - am I right? If so, then well and good, because clafoutis is one of the thriftiest, spunkiest and easiest desserts you will ever make. Cherries are the absolute traditional fruit of choice, and some authorities insist that whole cherries - including the pip - is the only authentic avenue. I say phooey to that. If you can get the gumption up to pit a bag load of cherries, then I say enjoy your clafoutis sans roughage. Of course, cherries are a treat enjoyed only in the summer months; so many other clafoutis recipes have sprung up, using fruit from all seasons.
The recipe that follows uses raspberries, but only because they are one of my favourite fruits. You could really use any fruit you like instead - any berries you lust after, halved and pitted plums, slices of poached pear - and yes of course - even cherries.
Lets do it
Pre-heat your oven to 190° C (375° F). Choose a shallow baking dish, roughly half the size of your computer keyboard (15 cm x 22 cm, if you use a laptop), and butter it liberally. Do not be stingy here, as you don't want the clafoutis to stick. Alternatively, you could use 4 smaller individual baking dishes - each roughly the size of a compact disc.
Place the eggs, flour, sugar, milk and vanilla into a mixing bowl. Whisk well until the batter has combined, then set aside in the fridge for 15 minutes to let it rest.
Scatter the raspberries evenly over the bottom of the baking dish. Pour over the batter, and then bake for 30 - 35 minutes for the large clafoutis, or 15 - 20 minutes for the smaller ones. The batter should have puffed up and look irresistibly golden, and it should feel slightly firm to the touch, without any sense of liquidity. Return to the oven for a few minutes if it seems under done.
Cool slightly, then dust generously with icing sugar, by shaking a sieve-full over the top. Spoon out generous and steamingly-yummy serves, and accompany them with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.