My Plum Clafoutis Is an Ode to My Late Father
Clafoutis is a classic French dessert of fruit baked in thick custard-like batter. It often features cherries but this healthy clafoutis recipe features plums. Feel free to experiment with other fruit if you'd like.
Around the time that my father was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS), 14 years ago next spring, he started regressing. For instance, one day, he told me that he wasn't going to eat vegetables anymore. He did this in the sort of insouciant way of the teenaged, and not in the way that one might expect of a 50-something-year-old man. "I'm done with asparagus," he said, as if someone was trying to force him to eat it.
I might have expected this kind of pushback from my maternal grandmother, Molly, who hated vegetables her entire adult life, and who could only be compelled to eat healthily with the promise of chocolate ice cream at the end of a meal (she lived past 90; so much for those predictable health advisories about eating one's vegetables).
But this was my father, the same man who had wanted me to exercise, and who had inevitably gotten me into the sport of competitive running. This was the man who had spooned wheat germ onto cantaloupe for breakfast in the 1990s, who had run 10 miles in the summer mornings before we had shaken ourselves from bed, and who had returned, sinewy and sweaty, only to drip nonchalantly onto his copy of the Sunday New York Times.
Somewhere, in the recesses of his childhood memory, my father remembered and favored not wheat germ (who can blame him, really?), but frozen custard from the Jersey Shore, and banana milkshakes, and tooth-shatteringly crisp fried chicken and—to interject one small item of produce (but never a vegetable!), a perfectly ripe plum. As for plums: he looked forward to them even at the end. To him, it was, I think, the embodiment of summer. Maybe it's because a bad plum can be terrible—too tart and unbalanced, painful to bite into—and a good plum, when you find it, can set right the world.
Toward the end of my father's life, with his ability to chew compromised, he relied on softer foods. You can't really turn a plum into a milkshake, and a plum has no place in a smoothie, either. But those pliant plums, at their softest and most tender: those I learned to work with. I summoned them in cakes and in the occasional fool.
Once he was gone, I thought about plums still. My father was a custard lover, and I know he would have appreciated a sweet reminder of summer that combined both his favorite fruit and a version of his favorite dessert, a delicate baked custard in the form of a clafoutis, set fluffy in the oven.
Although plums are mostly considered a summer fruit, they dovetail with fall, which is why Jewish people often eat them at Rosh Hashana, often in cakes (there may be no plum cake more famous around the Jewish High Holy Days than Marian Burros' Original Plum Torte from 1983, with its delicate hints of lemon and cinnamon). Rosh Hashana, the new year, requires none of the sacrifice of Yom Kippur, where we starve ourselves to atone for our sins. It also requires none of the categorical difficulty of Passover, our spring holiday, where anything involving flour and yeast is strictly forbidden.
Though a plum torte or cake is one of the many traditional desserts offered at the start of the new year (the celebration must be "sweet," to usher in a sweet start), I actually prefer the clafoutis, which marries many of the ingredients of the torte (eggs, a touch of flour, often butter) with the luscious, end-of-summer/start-of-fall plums that signify the High Holidays.
My father would have loved my plum clafoutis, which is, after all, hardly a vegetable, and still light on its feet. The custard brings the plums to the top. You can feel in them the ripeness. It's what he loved about a good plum: that it was sweet, that it was tender, that it was rare in its perfection and yet, on the day that you happened to encounter it, a slightly tart, complex, violet sunset of a fruit, just waiting to be devoured.
9-inch pie pan
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