I’ve been thinking about alchemy a lot lately. Not the quest to turn lead into gold, but the type of magic that unfolds in the kitchen--the transformation of pantry staples into something transcendent.
I became somewhat obsessed with the idea of kitchen sorcery while developing the recipe for this roasted grape clafoutis. Like a soufflé or a a Dutch baby, a clafoutis feels like an impressive magic trick. You whisk together a few mundane ingredients (flour, sugar, eggs, milk), drop in a handful of fruit and slide your batter in the oven. Less than an hour later, you’ve got a puffed, sugar-crusted pillow of cakey, custardy deliciousness.
This clafoutis is based on a version my friend Rachael made during our Paris culinary retreat. Now Rachael is a talented pastry chef, so I was prepared for her clafoutis to be delicious (which it was). What I wasn’t prepared for were the the memories each bite unleashed.
Suddenly, I was 19 again, accompanying my mother on a work trip to France. Thrilled to be abroad for the first time, I was in awe of everything: The Eiffel Tower! The Arc de Triomphe! Croissants! People actually smoking Gauloise cigarettes like they do in old French movies!!!
Near Alsace, we stopped for lunch at an unassuming restaurant with a hand-painted sign. The menu was classic French: steak au poivre, blanquette de veau, coq au vin. For dessert, there was something called clafoutis. I had zero idea what clafoutis was, but it sounded sexy and French so I ordered it.
When my dessert arrived, the unpitted cherries and hint of kirsch confirmed its continental sophistication in my mind. Sitting in a French restaurant eating what I thought was a refined dish, I felt grown-up. Wordly even. Miles from the Midwestern girl raised on Kraft Mac and Cheese and Eggo waffles.
That clafoutis was proof that marvelous things existed. Sophisticated, delicious things. Things I wanted to be part of.
Memories of that trip tumbled back with every bite of Rachael’s clafoutis: Our tiny rented car. Getting lost on winding country roads. The inevitable mother-daughter squabbles. The thrill of discovering steak-frites and being allowed to drink wine before my 21st birthday.
Amazement, too. That I had managed to wind my way back, however circuitously, to this country I love. I was shocked to realize how many of the twists and turns my life has taken were rooted in that trip: my French-Studies major, working in the department of French Painting at the Met, four years in Brussels pursuing a master’s degree in French history, working in a French restaurant in Seattle.
And now, two decades after that first revelatory bite of clafoutis, I find myself leading culinary tours to Paris, sharing a love of all things French sparked half a lifetime ago. This feels magical, too. As though my 19-year-old self willed this life into being. Like I planted a piece of my heart in France and I’ve been returning ever since in order to feel whole again.
Thoughts of that clafoutis stayed with me when I got home. When I started working on my own version, I wanted the results to feel like the transformation it embodied: a dessert that goes in the oven a simple custard and emerges miraculously golden and souffléd under a crackled sugar crust. Add to that the rum-raisin notes conjured up by roasting grapes with a splash of dark spirits and you’ll see why this dish tastes like magic. Served with a dollop of tart crème fraîche, it’s far grander than the sum of its parts.
It’s funny how all this nostalgia and serendipity got rolled into one roasted grape clafoutis. But it’s fitting, too, that this particular dish reminds me of how each time I come back to Paris I’m transformed into my truest and lightest self--through some mysterious alchemy of the soul.
Roasted Grape Clafoutis
- 1 lb grapes, washed and dried
- 1 tablespoon butter, plus extra for the pan
- 2 tablespoons dark rum, divided
- 2 tablespoons water
- ¾ cup + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided, plus extra for the pan
- 1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- Pinch salt
- 7 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 ⅓ cup heavy cream
- ⅛ teaspoon almond extract
- 1 ½ cups crème fraîche, to serve
*Notes: I recommend a sweet-tart variety of grapes for this recipe. The first time I made it, my grapes were too sweet and the finished result was cloying. If you can't find grapes with a little sour zing, add a bit more lemon juice to balance them.
- Having your eggs at room temperature allows the clafoutis to puff higher. If you forget to pull them in advance, just pop you eggs in a bowl of hot tap water and let them sit for 15 minutes or so before using them.
- Traditionally, this French dessert is made with cherries. But one of the best things about a clafoutis is that it’s supremely adaptable. In addition to cherries and roasted grapes, it’s lovely with pitted and sliced stone fruit such as plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots. A few handfuls of fresh berries work well in spring and summer. Apples or pears sauteed in butter with a splash of calvados, brandy or pear au de vie are perfect for making this dish in the winter months.
- Whatever you do, don’t skip the crème fraîche; you want that hit of tanginess to balance the sweet grapes.
Preheat the oven to 450° F with a rack in the center of the oven. Place the grapes (on the stem or not) on a parchment-lined rimmed sheet pan. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small pan or in the microwave and pour it over the grapes. Sprinkle them with 1 tablespoon of the rum, 2 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Roast until the grapes have softened slightly (their skins will shrivel a little bit) and the sugar has caramelized, about 20 minutes. Pour the lemon juice over the grapes as soon as you remove them from the oven to deglaze the pan. Set aside to cool slightly. Reduce the oven temperature to 375° F
While the grapes are cooling, generously butter a baking pan and coat it with sugar. (Mine was 8" x 11".) Invert the pan and tap out any excess sugar. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ½ cup + 2 tablespoons of the sugar and the salt. Add the eggs and whisk until the mixture is smooth. This takes a minute--if the batter looks lumpy, just keep whisking until it evens out. Whisk in the cream, almond extract and remaining tablespoon of rum.
Arrange the grapes over the bottom of the prepared pan. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape any juices from the sheet pan over the grapes. Pour the batter over the grapes. Sprinkle the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar evenly over the top of the clafoutis and carefully place it in the oven.
Bake until the clafoutis is puffed, golden-brown at the edges and just set in the center, 30-35 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool slightly before serving. The clafoutis will deflate as it cools. While it is still warm, cut the clafoutis into slices and serve topped with crème fraîche.
Makes 6-8 servings.
Recipe adapted from Rachael Coyle of Coyle's Bakeshop