My father loved to fish, his East Coast genes commanding that love. Dad loved camping too but only camping where water was nearby. After all, nothing tasted better than fresh fish frying on a camp stove, unless it was fresh fish accompanied by the wonderful cherry jam he made to go with it.
While Mom set the table and my sister trotted off with her Barbie dolls, Dad’s fishing pole arced and fell, and I caught up with Nancy Drew’s latest mystery. When Dad had enough fish, even Nancy was cast aside for lunch.
While the fish sizzled, he caramelized onions for the cherry jam. How he fell upon this combination I don’t know, but the jam, little more than fresh cherries, green pepper and onions, was tart and sweet, and we slathered it onto the hot fish. With coleslaw and bread, we had a midday feast.
After lunch, we were logy, sluggish in our movements but content in our thoughts. Even Barbie looked ready to stretch out on her lounge chair for a nap.
Fresh cherries open up new possibilities
Before moving to Ontario, Canada, we never ate fresh cherries, the ones arriving at the grocery store already covered with a fuzzy coating of mold. So we contented ourselves with maraschino cherries in canned fruit cocktail or topping an ice cream sundae or the glace cherries in a cake that had been passed down from my Great-Grandmother Hunt.
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I never knew her, but in Dad’s words she was “a corker” (an excellent or astonishing person). All of 4 feet and practically as wide as she was tall, she wore a black apron that fringed her ankles and had a Newfoundland dog, looking more pony than canine, that rarely left her side.
When Dad spent summer holidays with her and his grandfather, she made boiled dinners that were often gray in the pot and roasts of beef that inevitably blackened in her care, but she also made a cherry cake that he and the dog salivated over. The cake was one of the few things that she made — along with poached eggs, fish stew and gingerbread — that was a keeper, he said.
Although really just a pound cake with glace cherries added, it was the beating of butter and sugar until silken and the addition of almond flavoring and orange juice that elevated the cake to something special. She used a wooden spoon and an English mason bowl that she sat in her lap, creaming the butter and sugar with a steady rhythm, while the other ingredients waited to be added. The last thing mixed in was the cherries, which had been sprinkled with flour so they wouldn’t fall to the bottom of the cake as it baked.
Great-Grandmother Hunt hummed while the spoon beat against the bowl, the oil stove undulating in the heat and Dad and the dog sitting close by, waiting.
Later, when she took the cakes out of the oven, they hardly had time to reach the cooling racks before boy and beast were at her elbow, begging for slices that had been tinged pink from the cherries.
Decades later, Dad made those cakes for me and my sister, but by then, we’d also become fresh cherry lovers. The Bing cherries that grew on a tree in the back garden of our new home were fat and glossy, and what a wonder it was to pick a handful whenever we wanted.
I was sometimes sent out with the step stool and a bowl to pick enough cherries for a new dessert Dad discovered in the only cookbook he ever bought, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Later, he found the tall and gangly author of the book, Julia Child, on television by accident and learned to make new, French dishes, but Cherry Clafoutis remained one of his favorites.
It looked like a puffed up pancake as it baked, but it was so much more — light textured and bursting with cherries. Powdered sugar sprinkled on top added an extra touch of sweetness. Cherry Clafoutis became a weekend treat and a camping specialty. Dad even made a metal hood for the camp stove so he could bake the dessert on it.
The aroma of the baking clafoutis lured friends and strangers to our camping spot. Soon, slices were being passed around, powdered sugar was coating lips and cherry juice dribbled down chins. It was hard to imagine life before this dessert and before fresh cherries.
Dad tweaked Child’s clafoutis over the years, adding ingredients and changing amounts, but he always credited her with opening up a whole new direction in cooking and baking for him. His clafoutis is the version I still make.
I stay true to Great-Grandmother Hunt’s cherry cake recipe, though, like he did, and although Bing cherries are still my favorites, I also like light-fleshed Rainiers, the “Princess of cherries,” while the Lapin’s deep red skin and flesh makes a cherry jam that is still perfect slathered on pan fried trout.
Inspired by Julia Child’s recipe.
- Pinch of salt
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup white sugar, divided
- ½ cup buttermilk
- ½ cup 10% cream
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 2 teaspoons almond extract
- 2 cups cherries, pitted (fresh work best, but frozen cherries, thawed and drained, work well too)
- Powdered sugar
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Sift the salt and flour together in a small bowl.
- In a medium-size bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add ½ cup sugar and whisk until combined, then add the buttermilk, cream, orange juice and almond extract; whisk until smooth.
- Add the sifted flour and salt and blend well.
- Pour half the batter into a greased baking dish (about an 8-cup capacity) and place in the preheated oven. When the batter has started to set around the sides of the pan (about 10 minutes), remove the pan from the oven.
- Sprinkle the cherries and then the additional ½ cup of sugar over the batter. Add the rest of the batter and return the dish to the oven.
- Bake for about 45 minutes (or until the clafoutis has puffed up, is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean).
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm.
Main photo: Fresh cherries. Credit: Sharon Hunt