The spectacle of lighting a dessert on fire is always exciting, even after the heaviest meals. A flambéed cherries jubilee is made with fresh ripe cherries, cooked until tender before being set ablaze with brandy. The final result is a warm, slightly boozy, cherry-packed sauce served over cold and creamy vanilla ice cream.
The dessert is so beloved that it has its own holiday — National Cherries Jubilee Day, celebrated on Sept. 24th. It might seem strange to celebrate a cherry dessert at the tail end of their growing season, but think of the holiday more like summer's last hurrah before the colder months settle in.
Some may be uncomfortable making flambéed desserts at home, but cherries jubilee is a relatively simple dish that just requires a bit of extra care. For some pointers on how to bring this classic dessert to life at home, I asked chef Michael Zebrowski, associate professor of baking and pastry arts at the and author of , for some pointers.
Renowned French chef, Auguste Escoffier, is credited with creating cherries jubilee in 1897, for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebration. But the original dessert was served with a little less spectacle.
"They poached cherries that were simply spooned over vanilla ice cream and then they literally would pour [uncooked] Brandy over the whole thing and serve it," says Zebrowski. "Understand and respect that it's a boozy dish, you know?"
Later, when Escoffier published Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery in 1903, the recipe was adapted to include a tablespoon of kirschwasser (a clear brandy made from morello cherries) per serving, which was then set aflame over the cooked cherries. "Cover the cherries with the thickened syrup; pour one coffeespoonful of heated kirsch into each timbale (serving mold), and set a light to each when serving," wrote Escoffier.
"Having a little bit of kirschwasser in there helps to layer and reinforce the cherry flavor," says Zebrowski, who also prefers to use kirsch in his recipe, alongside brandy. When choosing a brandy, Zebrowski suggests, "[A] middle-of-the-road commonly-accessible brandy. Nothing too cheap. And nothing crazy stupid expensive either."
Picking the right cherries is often a matter of what's available, but for those looking to create a classic cherries jubilee, Zebrowski suggests sticking with sweet Bing cherries. "I kind of want to respect the tradition, which would just be flat out Bing cherries — whole cherries that are pitted," says Zebrowski. "Personally, though, I would probably lean toward sour cherries, or morello cherries, just because I think that they have an inherent flavor punch that lends itself well [to] cooking. And then if they're too sour, you can add more sugar."
Following Zebrowski's instructions, I set out to make cherries jubilee at home. First, I washed pitted a pound of Bing cherries, before scaling two tablespoons of lemon juice and half a cup of sugar and scraping half of a vanilla bean pod into a sauté pan. I turned the heat on medium-low and let the cherries begin to cook.
"The sugars can dissolve, and then it's going to start pulling out the natural juices of the cherries and … [the] vanilla bean's infusing," explains Zebrowski. "You're cooking it until the cherries are cooked through. They should break down slightly — they're still totally whole and intact, but you can tell that they're tender."
The cherry syrup turned a nice shade of red from the cherry juices and all of the sugar dissolved while cooking. While the cherries cooked, they made gentle hissing and popping noises as the liquid inside them simmered.
Next, I made a slurry with one tablespoon of kirsch and one teaspoon of cornstarch and measured out one-quarter cup of brandy. I added the cornstarch-kirsch slurry to the pan and continued to cook it for a few more minutes. Once the juice cleared and thickened, it was time for the main event — the flambé.
"Put the brandy at the end of the pan and flip it into the flame — and step out of the way," says Zebrowski. "I would say do it in a big sauté pan … and just keep your eyebrows away." Following his instructions, I poured the brandy in all at once on the far side of the pan, turned the flame up to high and tilted the pan towards it — taking care not to spill the cherry sauce.
The flame should not be so tall that sets off your fire alarm, but expect a low blue flame that dances across the cherries in your pan. It'll last anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or two. Depending on how bright your kitchen is, the flame may be difficult to see, which is why the spectacle of making this dessert table-side in an under-lit dining room is so appealing.
Once the flame died down, I continued cooking the sauce on low for another minute or two to reduce the additional liquid. The sauce should be thick enough to coat a rubber spatula and hold its shape when you run your finger through it. Taste the sauce to see if you want to add more sugar or lemon.
Finally, pull your cherries off the stove and spoon them over your favorite vanilla ice cream. "To take it a step a step further, I think it could use a little textural contrast," says Zebrowski. "You're leaning into a little bit of an ice cream sundae situation … and I personally think cherry really lends itself naturally to an almond flavor. I could see, for example, say you have like amaretti cookies, nice and almond-y, and you chop them up a bit, and then you sprinkle them over [the cherries jubilee]. For me, that would be super, I would love that."
Ready to make your own cherries jubilee dessert? Zebrowski shares his recipe.
Courtesy of chef Michael Zebrowski
1 pound Bing cherries, washed and pitted whole (about 4 cups)
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
½ vanilla bean pod, split and scraped *see note below
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon kirschwasser
½ cup brandy
Vanilla ice cream
Amaretti-style cookies (optional)
Combine the cherries, sugar, lemon juice and vanilla bean in a large sauté pan and cook over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves and cherries begin to soften.
Stir cornstarch and kirsch together in a small bowl. Add the slurry to the cherries and continue to cook, allowing the cherry sauce to thicken (about 5 minutes), stirring regularly.
Once the sauce has thickened and cherries are tender, pour the brandy into the pan all at once at the far side of the pan. Turn the flame all the way up, and tilt the pan towards it, allowing the flame to jump into the pan and ignite the liquor.
Reduce the heat to low, step back and let the cherries flambé. (If you are using an electric or induction cooktop: turn the heat down and add the brandy. Light the liquor with a long-neck lighter to flambé.)
Once the flame has subsided, continue to cook on low for another minute or two to reduce the liquid. Test the sauce thickness and adjust to taste.
Remove the pan from heat, and immediately serve over ice cream.
*You can also substitute a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract and reserve it until the very end. When you remove the pan from the heat, stir in the extract before serving.
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