The fruity frontier
Our columnist’s search for the perfect clafoutis recipe comes by way of Transylvania – a golden beauty studded with greengage plums as velvety as they are verdant
Plums are the tribbles of the fruit world, so abundant are they. How could one ever forget the scene in Star Trek when Captain Kirk almost smiled – “Cute!” – as the USS Enterprise was overrun by these fuzzy little things. (I am not too sure he did, but in this instance one might have forgiven him.)
Delightful in every way, plums have the extraordinary ability to appear in such vast amounts that it is overwhelming.
I find that a reasonably straightforward way to chart a course through the sea of plums is to choose a green one. That said, there is only one green plum in relatively plentiful supply – the greengage – which seems brilliantly to resist commercial disaster. Not wishing to be unkind, the more commercial varieties of plums have an uncanny knack of never ripening, remaining firm, impossible to stone and, well, jam very badly.
The pudding this week is a greengage clafoutis, a classic dessert that adores any good variety of plum. Should fruit availability prove troublesome, fear not: a prune is also excellent here, as is a pear, perhaps poached, or lightly caramelised, even.
This seemingly simple recipe baffled me for many years, as I endlessly ended up with a leaden duffer of a pud, so much so that I quite gave up on it. It was at a lunch in Transylvania, quite literally, that my admiration for clafoutis was restored mightily. I had been flown to Cluj and driven to Turda on the Transylvanian plains, a historical region in Romania renowned for its beauty. The market in Turda had tables piled high with some of the finest, freshest produce I have ever seen for sale in a market.
One day, we journeyed for several hours to an ancient village called Copsa Mare. There we ate very well at the Copsa Mare Guesthouse. A good lunch was concluded with a beautiful pudding that was as close to being a clafoutis as can be – made with rhubarb.
How was this pudding made, I asked? The recipe kindly offered was from Simona Secju, the cook who had made it. As with recipes close to the heart of the cook, I could not capture the magic of this lovely pudding.
It is so often time and place that defines a recipe.
But not long after I had returned home from this Carpathian adventure, I pulled a copy of Mastering The Art of French Cooking – by those good women Julia Child, Louisette Berthold and Simone Beck – from the shelf, to see whether the clafoutis recipe in their book might indeed be a distant cousin to what I had enjoyed at lunch in Transylvania.
The result was excellent! I smiled to myself that, like the Wizard of Oz story, it took a trip to Transylvania to make me find a recipe I had had all along; to make a pudding that made – at last – for happy memories.
Plum clafoutis Serves 6-8
80g caster sugar, reserve 30g for sprinkling at the end
1 vanilla pod
A pinch of salt
65g plain flour
500g greengages, mirabelles, or any firm dark plum like a Victoria (or best prunes, or even a poached pear), halved and stones removed
1 Heat the oven to 170C/335F/gas 3½. Lightly butter a cast-iron frying pan or an earthenware dish near enough 25cm in diameter.
2 Put the milk, 50g caster sugar, eggs, vanilla pod, a pinch of salt and the flour, in the order listed, in a liquidiser. Cover and blend for 1 minute.
3 Pour the batter into the baking dish until it reaches a depth of 2cm. Put the dish over a moderate heat for
1-2 minutes, until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish.
4 Remove the dish from the heat. Dot the plum halves all over the batter, then sprinkle the remaining 30g of sugar over the top. Pour in the rest of the batter and smooth with the back of a spoon.
5 Put in the middle of the oven and bake for about an hour. The clafoutis is done when puffed and browned, and a knife or skewer plunged into its centre comes out clean. Best served warm, and requires only a little cream to accompany.