When I first got back to the Midwest last summer after living in Boston, the first thing I noticed, after the noisome quiet of the evening, was how bright fruit tasted. Seriously, a Michigan cherry in midsummer is something to relish, to celebrate, nearly to idolize. So, returning to the Midwest last July, returning to a kitchen fully equipped in cherry season, I made my first cherry clafoutis.
Now, it’s not that I lacked for a kitchen in my Boston apartment (the once and future Boycat Manor), more that my kitchen itself was lacking. I can hardly blame it, stacked as it was against a single half-wall, galley-style, to leave as much square footage as could be spared for a 2-bedroom just off Commonwealth in Brighton. And I can scarcely complain, given that my roommate moved me into the biggest bedroom, with the three bay windows and enough floor space for a queen-sized bed. It seemed a miracle that all my things had space in a new life, it seemed a somewhat smaller wonder when they all trickled back with me to the parsonage in Indiana.
But my mother’s kitchen, for all that it was my mother’s kitchen, was a boon. For one thing, countertop for days, another: there was no need to rush out to Star Market for a wire whisk. Best of all: a five-burner gas range and a pilot-lit oven, at my fingertips, as I wished. So when I continued my self-education in pastry, that summer, and onward–that year–the smaller life I took on seemed larger in at least one way that counted, I had room to breathe.
Clafoutis is a pastry of southern France, drawn from traditions still drenched in the Langues d’oc that centuries of Parisian monarchy, Catholic heresy-hunting, and republican reorganization have failed to extinguish. As I understand it, it’s a variation of the common flaugnarde of Occitan cuisine, a large, baked pancake named for its “soft, downy” quality. But in English, it’s also sometimes called “berry flan”, a term derived from French of the other kind, the Langues d’oïl, in the north. To compound this confusion, what we term as flan in the United States–the thick, caramelly custard–is only called flan in our English, and in Spanish. Flan in British English is more like French quiche, and
You get the picture. The boundaries that language and custom draw create and confound complexities in the same stroke. One word, flan, contains at least three referents, drawn from two separate streams of the Indo-European language current, each of which contain at least one idea in common (“beaten eggs, baked with hot air, consumed”), but all of which are distinct and discrete in practice. To make clafoutis (a flaugnarde clafoutis, that is “filled” with cherries), a berry flan, as Julia Child has it, is to touch a place in culture where the genes still have potential energy to diverge and make another beast entire.
It was about that time last summer that I started to call myself “Flan” sometimes in my Internet-facing self. This began as a side-along glance at 🍮, what Unicode and Apple term the “Custard Emoji” (which my New Mexican friend Antonia quickly informed me was the “Flan Emoji”, plainly), but the joke deepened when I stumbled back into my mother’s kitchen, and tumbled down the rabbit hole of clafoutis, of referents, of the nature of categories. I gave myself a moniker; I found a mirror for my preoccupations.
At my best these days, I’m floating between and against categories like hot air presses out against egg whites in the oven. Language, space, time, and telos are all in flux for me as I’m moving once more across the country, moving into a future and a self. What I find constant, I find in pastry. Certain things are immutable: the tartness of a Michigan cherry (sweeter in New Jersey), the flakiness of butter pressed out against flour, and of course, the airiness of eggs, beaten, baked.
When I first went home, I baked clafoutis. I made it one more time before I left to take home with me, and it was better still.
Adapted from “Julia Child’s Berry Flan.”
You will need:
- Butter for one pan, at least 1½ in. deep
- 1 pint cherries, rinsed and dried
- 1¼ cups whole milk
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup flour. (For a denser, custardy feel. You may use less for an airier flan.)
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar, divided
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract (my variation, which I find essential.)
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- Powdered sugar, to sift