Monday, July 17, 2006

Retro food: Cherries Jubilee

In Jeremiah Tower's California Dish, the most over-the-top of the culinary memoirs I have been reading (Tower quotes himself in an epigraph!), he includes numerous menus, documents of meals he had or read about. He says he started saving these around 1970 after seeing them in Cecil Beaton. Tower's editor didn't understand what they were doing in his writing so he composed a chapter he calls an interlude to explain them, the way they invite the reader to probe their suggestions of preparation techniques and ingredients and to infer details of the social event at which they appeared. It might come off as pretentious to write down a menu, especially for a casual and modest dinner, so if this sort of pretentiousness makes you want to barf you may skip ahead.

Here is what we ate Sunday evening:

Summer Rolls

Shrimp and Corn Chowder

Blue Star Great American Wheat Beer

Cherries Jubilee

Oh do I love the centered list. Just right.

We were six at the table but two of us were wee youngsters so this was all served in rapid succession and with many interruptions for turning on the television and such things. Meals enjoyed in the company of toddlers tend to start and end early and this might seem, if you are unfamiliar with the modern breeding lifestyle, like a heartbreaking cramp in your style. Well, you get used to it. There is an upside: getting the kitchen clean by 8 pm is nice. It gives you enough time to watch a Galactica and two Lagunas before turning in, which is a big help if you are trying to see all the good television shows before you die.

Another thing I love about Tower's menus is the spareness of their language. The restaurant menu of today is linguistically atrocious, cluttered with frivolous descriptions, ill-chosen verbs, and meaningless ingredient provenances. Chefs are too eager to show off what they're doing even before you have had the chance to taste the food. But the traditional continental menu is elegant in its subtlety and directness. Sometimes a dish is described in a single word like pâté or sole. According to setting and context, one can figure out how it would have been prepared. Often this depends on the reader having some knowledge of French cuisine nomenclature, but even if I don't exactly know what it means I would rather see a simple and straightforward name than a long-winded narrative.

As it happens, those summer rolls contained carrots, cukes, and mint leaves acquired from area farms, in addition to noodles and rice paper from the Far East and peanuts from the Planter's can. Likewise, the chowder had corn from around here, coconut milk from Thailand, and seafood from God-knows-where. The beer is the new wheat brew of North Coast Brewing Co., whose Red Seal Ale has long been a favorite.

And the cherries! This was my virgin Jubilee. My sense is that this is one of those many continental dishes that died at the hands of American country club cooks and “fine dining” establishments of the Maison de la Casa House variety. In the standard bastardization (so I have read), Cherries Jubilee is made of overly sweet and thickened canned cherry pie filling and cheap brandy. I made it using fresh sour cherries from near Green Bay and good bourbon, and the ice cream was homemade. The temperature approached one hundred F this weekend, so ice cream went over well. (Chowder might not seem like a summer dish but in fact, when my family vacationed in Cape Cod in the summer of 1978, I ate chowder at every opportunity, hoarding saltines to crumble into my bowl.)

Cherries Jubilee has several things going for it.

1. It contains cherries, "one of the most refreshing fruits and the most highly thought of." (Larousse, 243). Granting that cherries are widely thought of very highly, is this not an insane statement?

2. You set it on fire. Dining room theatrics keeps the dish on menus. Kids and grownups alike are thrilled to see things aflame (not dining room curtains, mind you, which I'm told were occasionally the casualties of the 1970s craze for flambé).

3. It's fun to say jubilee. Queen Elizabeth's silver jubilee in 1977 might not have been Canada's answer to the U.S. bicentennial, but it was the occasion for much fun in my kindergarden class.

4. It is made with ice cream.

The web is crawling with recipes for this dish and it hardly needs one from me. Basically, you pit the cherries, mix them with syrup (sugar and water in equal parts), add a bit of lemon juice, cook until they ae cooked, and squirt in some more lemon if it needs it. I thickened with a bit of corn starch slurried with some of the cherry juice/syrup in the pan and then, just before serving, added a tbs or two of bourbon. I set this on fire and when it went out spooned the hot cherry mixture over scoops of ice cream.

Sour cream vanilla
The sour cream is hardly noticeable but it does balance the sweetness and goes well with a dish made with sour cherries. Using vanilla sugar and vanilla extract makes for an intense flavor.

9 oz vanilla sugar
8 yolks
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 cups half and half
1/4 cup sour cream
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Warm the half and half up. Whisk together the yolks and slowly incorporate the sugar. Temper into the cream, heat to 170, then add the heavy cream and sour cream, whisking to incorporate. Add the vanilla extract. Chill, churn, freeze, scoop, top with cherries.

More cherries:

The Chocolate Lady's Pitted Black Cherries for that Aching Midsummer Sadness:
Remove stones from about a dozen sweet black cherries with your fingers or the nifty gadget of your choice. Put them all into your mouth at the same time. Grasp the possibility that the pain can end.
David Lebovitz likes cherries too.


Blogger Mrs. M. said...

How about a recipe (or some hints) for the seafood and corn chowder?


11:42 AM  
Blogger mzn said...

Yulinka, the recipe is here.

1:08 PM  
Blogger zoe p. said...

Old menus and summer chowder rock. The library where I used to work had a large collection of US turn of the century menus . . . do I remember an olives and radishes course?

And in the past week I have twice been fascinated by this queens' jubilee thing. Your mention makes 3. How do you celebrate?

9:03 AM  
Blogger mzn said...

My memories are a bit cloudy, but there was a party for the Queen in my kindergarden class not unlike a birthday celebration. I also remember commemorative coins, shiny silver dollars. QEII is on all the Canadian currency but these were special for the jubilee.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pitting sour cherries is no picnic; read my post on special cherry pie for my recent travail -

That said, I'm all for resurrecting the classics and did a bit of that myself this year, with crepes, souflee, and flan, all of them dishes I used to make frequently in the late 70s, early 80s and then sort of forgot about but still delicious.

2:04 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Rebecca, I think our sour cherries were firmer than yours. The pitter worked on them fine. Perhaps a different variety?

9:45 AM  

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