Last week, I fancied making a special dessert and wanted it to feature fresh fruit. I noticed several food stores were trumpeting the fact that plump and juicy B.C. cherries, the first of the season, were now available, and that sold me on what to use.
My next decision was what to do with those cherries. I must have been feeling nostalgic, because I opted to make something my wife and I might have enjoyed in a restaurant when we were courting in the 1980s.
Back then, there were still quite a few restaurants where waiters cooked food tableside. They included desserts that they topped with alcohol and ignited just before serving them, such as cherries jubilee.
I had not been served it or made it myself for a long while. So I did a bit of culinary research on how to prepare it. Along the way, I learned who invented this divine dessert.
According to the food-history website foodtimeline.org, historians generally credit Auguste Escoffier for creating cherries jubilee in the late 1800s, to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebration, since the monarch was fond of cherries.
Escoffier, who died in 1935, was a French chef, restaurant owner and author whose books were translated into English and published in North America. They included his renowned tome Guide Culinaire, which in English was titled The Escoffier Cookbook: And Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery for Connoisseurs, Chefs, Epicures.
I have a later edition of that book published in 1969 that includes a method for making cherries jubilee, although amounts of key ingredients, such as the cherries, sugar and water, are not provided.
The book instructs you to pit the cherries, poach them in syrup and set them in small silver timbales. You then reduce the syrup and thicken it with arrowroot or cornstarch, diluted with a bit of water. That syrup is poured over the cherries. The cherries in each timbale are topped with a bit of kirsch, a brandy made from cherry juice, and it’s ignited just before the dessert is served.
If you were one of the connoisseurs, chefs or epicures Escoffier’s book was designed for, you would be able to figure out how much of each ingredient to use. Cherries jubilee eventually became a popular dessert served all over the world, with several variations in how it’s made.
Most, including my recipe, call for the flaming of the cherries in the cooking pan, not in the diner’s serving dish, as Escoffier did. Some recipes now also call for citrus juice, such as lemon or orange, and others use melted butter and brown sugar, rather than syrup.
I kept my recipe simple, as Escoffier did, and heated pitted cherries in thickened syrup and flamed them just before they were served. When you have really fine cherries, as I did, they don’t need much else to make a divine dessert, especially when you serve them over good vanilla ice cream.
If you don’t have one, cherry pitters are sold at most stores that offer a wide array of kitchenware. My pitter was made by Cuisipro and it works great.
Cherries Jubilee for Two
Here’s a classic, divine summer dessert to end a special dinner for two. Have your serving dishes filled with ice cream and waiting in the freezer before making the cherries. That way you can serve the cherries the moment they are ready.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: About five minutes
Makes: Two generous servings
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp cornstarch
2 Tbsp Kirsch (divided; see Note)
20 large, fresh B.C. cherries, stemmed and pitted
• good vanilla ice cream, to taste, divided among two serving dishes
2 mint sprigs, for garnish, (optional)
Place sugar, water, cornstarch and 1/2 Tbsp of the Kirsch in a nine-inch skillet and whisk well to combine. Set skillet over medium, medium-high heat and bring mixture to a simmer.
Add cherries to the skillet and return to a simmer. Cook cherries, swirling the pan from time to time, until they become tender and a lightly thickened syrup forms around them, about four minutes.
Drizzle remaining 1 1/2 Tbsp Kirsch over the cherries, then very carefully ignite it with a long match. Cook cherries a few seconds more, until the flames die down. Divide and spoon the cherries over the ice cream, garnish with mint sprigs, if using, and serve.
Note: Kirsch is brandy distilled from fermented cherry juice. It is sold at most liquor stores.
Eric’s options: This recipe could be doubled or further expanded.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.