Cherries Jubilee is a dramatic dessert, most often served in traditional French restaurants. Intrepid cooks may make their own version in home settings, but it does take some cooking experience, especially with the flambé method, to prepare the dessert safely. The drama of Cherries Jubilee comes from the fact that cherries are drenched in liqueur or brandy, typically kirsch, kirshwasser or even cognac, via the flambé method, where the alcohol flames up and is mostly burned off. In modern versions, Cherries Jubilee is then served over vanilla ice cream.
The famous French chef, Auguste Escoffier, is credited with inventing Cherries Jubilee, and did so especially to mark the celebration of Queen Victoria of England’s Golden or Diamond Jubilee celebration. These Jubilees were essentially anniversaries, celebrating the number of years Victoria had ruled. Depending upon which account you credit, the invention of Cherries Jubilee could be dated to either 1887, the queen’s 50th year of rule, or 1897, Victoria’s 60th anniversary as queen. A version of the recipe credited to Basque cuisine, may far predate Escoffier’s dish, by as much as 200 years.
The original recipe for Cherries Jubilee as created by Escoffier was first published in his 1903 book Guide Culinaire, and the English version of this recipe was recorded in the 1961 Larousse Gastronomique. Neither recipe mentions ice cream, though fans of the dessert today would probably not recognize the dish without it. Peach melba, another fruit dessert invented by Escoffier in the 1890s, is served over ice cream, and suggests the possibility that Cherries Jubilee was also meant to be served that way too, or that more recent renderings of Escoffier’s recipe are confused with Peach Melba.
Recipes for the dessert in modern cookbooks differ, especially as to flavoring. Some recipes insist that almond extract be used. This is perhaps a reference to the Basque dish, and it seems to appear in numerous recipes for the dessert in Jewish cookbooks. In most recipes, slightly sour cherries are cooked in their juices, or are cooked with water. Recipes suggest thickening the sauce with cornstarch or arrowroot. The amount of sweetening differs; some varieties have a lot of sugar or cornstarch added. This can detract from the overall dish, since a contrast should exist between the sweeter ice cream and the semi-sour cherries.
If you’re preparing this dish at home, you should go for safely achieving the flambé method. If you’re cooking the cherries over an open flame when you add the kirshwasser, you want to turn off the flame first and then use a long lighter to light the alcohol. Adding alcohol to the cherries over an open flame can have unpredictable results, yet many chefs do just that.
Since Cherries Jubilee is best served hot, you may want to have cups of ice cream prepared. It takes only a few minutes for the flambé process. You’ll save yourself time if you have dished up your ice cream in advance, and the presentation of the dessert will go more smoothly. If you’re nervous about making the dish at home, do try this dish when you dine out. The flambé technique is fun to watch and the result is very delicious.