A Cherry Dessert Fit for a Queen

July 13, 2016

This article is brought to you by our friends at Electrolux as part of an ongoing series focusing on seasonal ingredients. Today: A bygone fruit sauce gets a savory update, just in time for the height of summer.

A jubilee is defined a couple of ways when Googled:

And it’s a word that just sounds joyous—jubilee—one that evokes dancing outside under the stars, checkered napkins and hair tied in ribbons, and mounds of dessert just waiting to be had. A pretty dreamy vision, if you ask me.

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So while the first definition seems relevant enough—I can't help but also recall the phrase "Jubilation, she loves me again!" from Simon and Garfunkel's song "Cecilia"—the second seems mildly tangential to the actual word. When did jubilee become a nickname for flambé?

Let's back up a minute, though: What is flambé—just a hoighty, en français culinary term? No, no—according to the culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, flamber is the act of pouring spirit over food and then igniting it. (Both to enhance flavor and "demonstrate culinary showmanship," Larousse says.) This could be for anything savory or sweet, really, despite what Google is telling you—we even have a recipe on our site that calls for flambéing shrimp.

But the more typical application is sweet, yes—brandy, rum, kirsch, or whiskey is often the culprit of the flames, having been lit up in a "jubilee" table-side in the past—whiz-bang style—just before it hits the plate. This presentation was a delight in the 40s and 50s not just in opulent, mid-century French restaurants, but at home, too. "What I have found is that its use in the home always seemed to follow the adaptation of a restaurant dish to home use," Matt Sartwell, Managing Partner and owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, a culinary bookshop on New York City's Upper East Side, says.

But this flamboyant style has lagged behind in the decades since. So how does a dish like this come to prominence, to the point that when you hear its name you automatically associate it with its preparation or ingredients, even if you aren't clearly sure of exactly what it is?

According to many, the origin of Cherries Jubilee was supposedly at Queen Victoria of England's Golden Jubilee—a celebration of her fiftieth year of reign in 1887. It was widely known, accounts say, that Victoria's favorite fruit was cherries, and that none other than Chef Auguste Escoffier developed the version we now know for this special occasion.

The food at these royal jubilees—held for important anniversaries for the throne, and therefore, not often—was indeed a form of pageantry: There were ox roasts, pounds of duck and lobster, luscious jellies and ice cream towers, breads and puddings, many molded into crowns or with initials of the king or queen. It seems to me that the rich, boozy sauce of Cherries Jubilee would not have been out of place.

Serve Cherries Jubilee over your favorite poundcake because...why not? Photo by James Ransom

I got to thinking that this celebratory dish deserves a reemergence—and an update on the syrupy-sweet flavor it's become known for. The addition of fennel pumps up the texture, crisp and anise-flavored, and black pepper takes things savory, all laid out on creamy vanilla ice cream and a soft pound cake. A little queenly, if you ask me.

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