Kitchn Love Letters

The Rich, Buttery, Fruit-Filled Cake I Make Every August (and You Should Too)

published Aug 26, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

For me, certain dishes conjure memories of people from my past. Banana cake always makes me think of my grandmother Dorothy and her banana cake with a baked-on frosting. Her sister Fannie set the benchmarks for peach cobbler and caramel cake, while German chocolate cake always reminds me of my Uncle Clarence.

And every time I make a clafoutis cake, a buttery French cake that I fill with gloriously ripe summer stone fruit, I think of Marion Cunningham. The prolific home cook turned author was known for updating the historic Fannie Farmer Cookbook, a classic that taught many Americans how to cook. She also wrote seven other cookbooks, including the foundational Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham. She was James Beard’s assistant for many years, and even helped him discover Alice Waters and her little cafe called Chez Panisse. I always considered her the doyenne of California food writers.

I was a young food writer at the newspaper in San Diego the first time we met. She was the guest of honor at a small reception — I believe it was at a luxury hotel in Coronado. The host introduced me to Cunningham, a regal woman with silvery white hair smoothed into a perfectly neat bun.

I was the lead writer at the newspaper, but at the time, I didn’t feel comfortable within the community of San Diego food writers. They were mostly older women who had been on the beat for years and almost exclusively white, and frankly condescending at times. In comparison, Marion was kind. And even though she was very successful in the food world, she didn’t act entitled or aloof. You could feel her warmth, and though she didn’t say a lot you could tell she noticed everything.

Cunningham also popularized one of my favorite desserts, the clafoutis cake recipe at Casa Orinda, a cozy Western-themed restaurant that’s been open for 89 years. Casa Orinda is an institution in its namesake town of Orinda, just 15 minutes east of Oakland, California. Cunningham and her husband, Robert, were regulars. “It was like the living room of Orinda,” owner John Goyak says. “Everyone went there, and you saw all of your friends.”

Legendary fried chicken and other meat-and-potatoes dishes headline the menu. Desserts ran to mud pie and cheesecake, until longtime waitress Sharon McCoy offered to make a few new desserts. 

The standout was her clafoutis cake, a take on the rustic French cake originally from the Limousin region, according to Food Timeline. There, it’s traditionally made with black cherries and eggs, which give it a texture like a pudding or thick crepe. But McCoy’s recipe omitted the eggs and favored stone fruit like peaches and plums.

The night Cunningham tried it, McCoy had made a clafoutis with peaches and blueberries or blackberries, and Goyak served her a corner piece. Cunningham called Goyak the next day with a report. “She said, you know, I don’t like clafoutis. But I just loved it. It wasn’t gummy. It was just beautiful,” Goyak recalls. Cunningham featured the recipe and invited McCoy to join The Bakers Dozen, a prestigious group of Bay Area bakers founded by Cunningham and Flo Braker that now has members across the country. 

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

I don’t recall the first time I tasted a clafoutis; I’ve been making this cake for so long it feels like I grew up eating it. I think I found it in the newspaper while I was still living in San Diego, and I decided to try it with some of the fragrant summer stone fruit from the farmers market. And after baking it just once, I was hooked. What’s not to love about a moist cake studded with melted fruit, and edges fried in brown butter? It’s a great way to use up peaches or plums that have gotten a little past ripe. It’s so easy and deeply satisfying, that it’s become my go-to potluck dessert. 

And if I were going solo to a party where I didn’t know anyone besides the host? This cake became my plus one; a sure way of establishing my bona fides as a woman who knows her way around the kitchen (and it can do the same for you). It’s also a reliable conversation starter. A taste leads to a smile, which leads to “Who made this?” It’s also the kind of cake that people covet. At a yacht party one summer, the hostess got miffed that the cake disappeared before she got a taste. Should I have mentioned that I spotted her husband hiding a mug stuffed with clafoutis? Hopefully he shared a bite or two.

Even though we’re not having large parties right now, I still wanted to enjoy the taste of ripe fruit baked into a buttery cake. So I adapted the original recipe into mini cakes that are baked in a muffin tin, which gives each one a crisp, golden crust. While we’re in peak stone fruit season, grab those farmers market peaches or plums, and make this buttery cake. You’ll be amazed that a recipe that’s so simple can be so satisfying. 

Get the recipe: Casa Orinda’s Clafoutis Cake (scroll down a little) 

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.