Sunday, 8 February 2015

My First Cherry Clafoutis, and a Few Words on the Bocuse d'Or 2015 Results

I was wandering aimlessly around my local supermarket the other week when I noticed punnets of beautiful cherries from Australia and New Zealand back on the shelves.  On the spot, I decided, without knowing what the recipe was or having a list of ingredients, that I would attempt my first cherry clafoutis.

The name clafoutis apparently derives from the Occitan "clafir", meaning "to fill".  The origin of this name is quite clear when you go through the process - after arranging the macerated cherries in your dish, you fill it with a custard / flan batter and bung it in the oven.

The French prefer to use the griotte, or sour morello cherry, for their clafoutis.  However, the griotte is in season only around May to July.  Bar-Roque Grill offered a clafoutis aux griottes last year, coinciding with a guest chef stint by chef-owner Stephane Istel's mother Sabine.  The common Antipodean dessert cherry doesn't have a particularly sexy name, or really any common name, from what I could see.  The signs at the shop merely said "Australian Cherries, $X for 100g".

The Cherry that dare not speak its name...
Clafoutis is really quite a simple dish.  It was so simple, in fact, that for once, my complete inability to follow a recipe did not seem to adversely affect the end result.  As best I can recall, this is what went into the dish:

Ingredients:

Macerated Cherries
 - 300 grams cherries
 -  Two tablespoons of caster sugar
 -  One tablespoon of kirsch cherry liqueur (I didn't have kirsch lying around, so I substituted this with a couple of tablespoons of black grape juice).

Batter
 - 3 eggs
 - one and a bit tablespoons of butter, softened
 - 50 grams plain flour
 - 150mL milk

What I would have added in retrospect to the batter:
 - zest of half a lemon.

Steps:

1.  After washing the cherries, chuck in your sugar and kirsch and let the fruit macerate, stones and all.  Apparently, it's socially acceptable to bake your clafoutis with the cherries whole, and it is even said that baking the stones releases a light almond flavour into the dessert.  I would suggest, however, that you warn your guests in advance to avoid any lawsuits or broken friendships / teeth.  Tip: to assist the maceration process, make some slits in the cherries so the cherry flesh is exposed to the sugar and kirsch solution, and can add its own lovely juices to the mix.

2.  Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

3.  Throw together your batter ingredients and whisk until smooth.  Please note that my "recipe", unlike most others you will find on the interwebs, doesn't use any sugar in the batter, as I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that the sweetness of the dessert cherry and grape juice would eliminate the need for any added sugar.  Do taste your cherries first, though, before making any rash decisions.

4.  Grease your baking dish with softened butter and dust it with caster sugar so (a) the baked product will not stick to your dish, and (b) it gives the base and edge of the clafoutis a nice caramelised finish.

5.  Line your baking dish with one layer of macerated cherries, clafir with your batter and chuck it in the oven for 25 minutes.

Work in Progress...
6.  Watch it over the next 25 minutes for shits and giggles.  Take a couple of photographs if you intend to blog the cooking process.

7.  Remove from oven, leave for a couple of minutes and consume.


I was rather pleased with the end result.  It was just right flavour-wise, still a little on the sweet side as the cherries were gorgeously ripe (hence my recommendation to add some lemon rind to up the tartness and balance the sweetness out).  Texture-wise, it was light and fluffy, perhaps a very little bit firmer than I would have liked, but still a beautiful dessert.  The cherries were warm, tender and easily cut with a fork, while retaining a nice bite.  

Do eat it fresh, though, as it sets to a rubbery consistency once it's put in the fridge.  Attuned as I am to all sorts of latex-like textures after seven unsuccessful years of trying to find some decent kueh in the Lion City, I didn't mind it so much, but I doubt all of my dear readers would have the same forebearance.


I saw more of the gorgeous cherries from the southern summer still in the supermarkets this evening.  From go-to-whoa, it literally takes 2.5 hours, and two of those hours are maceration time.  Definitely worth a shot, I think.

My Take on the Bocuse d'Or 2015 Results

Regular readers may recall that I tried doing my little bit to drum up some support for Singapore's challenge at the Bocuse d'Or cooking competition.  Singapore's candidate at the 2015 Bocuse d'Or competition, Yew Eng Tong, finished 17th out of the 24 competitors.

This blog may well be the only Singaporean media outlet where you will read this, quite a big drop-off in coverage since various magazines, newspapers and blogs were falling over themselves to cover the build-up, and Yew's second-placed finish in the Bocuse d'Or Asia qualifying round in June 2014.  Now that he's finished 17th, of course, no one seems to want to know him.

Of course, 17th could be seen as a disappointing result, especially in view of the fact that this was Yew's second attempt at the Bocuse d'Or, and that Yew also finished 17th in his first attempt.  Not helping matters was Yew's (rather unfortunate) excuse after his 2013 debut: "In the last Bocuse d'Or, we came in 17th place due to some confusion with the new rules and regulations for the fish plate. I wanted to compete again because I felt that we could do better now that we are fully aware of the criteria".  He didn't.

But before we sharpen our knives, let's step back for a minute and consider for a moment the monumental effort to even get to the Bocuse d'Or.  As we all know, being a chef can be as intense and thankless a job as exists, with (for most) pretty average pay and frankly appalling hours.  Taking on a challenge like the Bocuse d'Or, the preparation, the planning, the expense, even cooking in front of an audience for 5.5 hours on the day itself, is pretty f*cking intense.

And remember also that Singapore is a tiny nation, with a disproportionately small proportion of its citizen population working in professional kitchens.  Disregarding the Scandinavian competitors for a moment (who, for some strange reason, have always over-delivered in the Bocuse d'Or), it is hardly shameful for a Singaporean cooking French food to lose to culinary powerhouses such as the USA, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.

In Asia, there is a particularly mean and irrational side of our mentality when it comes to judging success.  When expectations are set, failure to meet them is greeted either with a cold shoulder (like now), some gormless Minister criticising the sports administrations for whom he is ironically responsible (Malaysia, pretty much every single year since the football corruption scandal of 1994) or executing the competitors (Iraq during the Saddam era).  Contrast that against the Australian attitude.  While Australians are some of the fiercest competitors on the sporting field, they also recognise the importance of effort, and that success or failure boils down to how you perform on the day.  When I first moved to Sydney back in the early 1990s, I was stunned to see messages on national TV congratulating Australian athletes for achieving "personal bests" at the Barcelona Olympics.  No world or Olympic records, no medals, no national records, only the fact that the athlete had done better than s/he had ever done before.  By definition, the athletes have played out of their skins, and after having qualified for the Games, excelled that mark subsequently.  Isn't that something to be proud of?

Well, according to our Asian mentality, no.  To put things in context, I had never even heard of the term "personal best" prior to that point, another indicator on the Asian obsession with winning hardware.  The ridiculous competitiveness that compels us to send our children to tuition in primary school, that drives us to make them do homework until after 10 pm, that makes them believe that their lives are failures unless they qualify to study law or medicine at university, has made our attitude to competition unhealthy.  If you do not win, you lose, and we do not associate with losers.  No wonder so many of us now seek the relative safety and anonymity of a 9-to-7 office job.

Yes, Yew bears some blame for setting our expectations high, but not for failing to live up to them.  He is still a talented chef, still one of Singapore's brightest culinary prospects, and I am sure his cooking has improved from the experience, even if he doesn't return to the Bocuse d'Or ring.  Kicking him now also detracts from the efforts and commitment of his supporters and mentors, some of Singapore's finest French cuisine chefs, who have donated their time and talent to support the campaign.

Chef Yew, if you are reading this, keep your chin up.  I am proud of your commitment to representing Singapore over the last four years, and you have done Singapore credit with your performance, including a first and second place finish at Bocuse d'Or Asia.  I'll also admit that I haven't tasted your food, but I sincerely hope to do so before too long.

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