Along the continuum of classic desserts, there exist very few varieties that fully embody dueling personality traits. On one end of the scale, there are the desserts that thrive on theatrics: those meant to wow a crowd and suspend culinary disbelief. Baked Alaska is one of these dishes, with its frozen-meets-fire, larger-than-life lore, and difficult-to-execute preparation, which requires just the right amount of insulating meringue to ensure the tricolored ice cream center stays frosty—even while baked. On the other end of the spectrum sits the breezy, simple-to-whip-up desserts that are foolproof and homey. No-bake cookies—a staple of elementary school fundraisers for their kid-friendliness and expediency—are a fine example. Beyond combining the peanut butter and a few other base ingredients in a bowl and forming bouncy ball-sized orbs, there’s literally nothing to it.
But what if I told you there’s a dessert that brings soap opera levels of incendiary drama while also being so painless to make that you (probably) don’t even need a recipe? Behold: cherries jubilee.
Much like the peach Melba, cherries jubilee was created by acclaimed French chef and restaurant magician Auguste Escoffier, who dreamed up the dish as part of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in 1897 and was inspired by her deep, abiding love of cherries. The original recipe, which appears in Escoffier’s seminal work, Le Guide Culinaire, calls for pitted cherries to be poached in simple syrup and the syrup to be then thickened with arrowroot (the cornstarch of the day). The mixture is then placed in silver timbales (small, squat cups), covered in kirschwasser (a type of cherry brandy) and set aflame—voila!—for guests, tableside. (See, I told you: incendiary drama.) With fewer than five ingredients total, and an eye-popping flammable bit of showmanship, it quickly became a beloved fine-dining dessert trick for restauranters—and one that has all the illusion of difficulty.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, home cooks even began to try to create cherries jubilee for dinner parties. Individual silver timbales were replaced by flambeeing the boozed-up cherries in a single pan prior to serving. Vanilla ice cream also became a regular supporting cast member, turning the cherries jubilee into more of an ornate topping than the stand-alone delight the dish was originally intended to be. Plenty of additional tinkering with the cherries jubilee recipe soon followed with often disastrous results: adding too much citrus; switching out kirschwasser for crème de cassis; dumping in enough cornstarch to make a goopy pie filling. These unnecessary shifts and substitutions made the dish skew too complex, detracting from cherries jubilee’s original impressive straightforwardness.
Cherries jubilee fell largely out of favor over the next several decades, relegated to yard sale cookbooks and labeled “kitsch” by chefs and diners alike…but not in a fun way. If you’re ready to lead the charge to make what’s old new again, return to a version of cherries jubilee that celebrates how the fruit itself can embrace both simplicity and drama—with a little help from a flame.