Stalking The Elusive, Worthy Apricot
Apricots are the finest of summer's fruits, with dense, juicy flesh and delicate, velvety skins. Piled in baskets in farmers market stalls, they seem to glow in the early morning light. The prettiest ones have a celestial blush and a sweet, floral fragrance.
That's why it is so disheartening when you bite into one only to find it is mealy and flavorless. I can't count the number of times this apricot lover has been the victim of just such an injustice. You probably have been, too.
I grew up eating apricots by the kilo during summers spent in Italy. I could not get enough of their intense flavor, of prying them open and biting into their sweet-tart meaty interiors. I liked them better than I liked gelato (OK — maybe that's a stretch, but not by much).
Finding worthy apricots this side of the Atlantic has been a challenge, especially since I am not in California, the source of about 95 percent of commercially grown U.S. apricots. By the time they make their way over to Virginia, where I live, I suspect any celestial qualities have been jostled out of them. Having been burned many times, I am now reluctant to pay upwards of $6 a pound at fancy grocery stores for apricots that don't deliver.
In recent years I've had some luck at my weekly farmers market, where the locally grown apricots, in season in late June and early July, are flavorful and juicy, if not quite as spectacular as those I remember from my childhood.
It took the apricot a long time — centuries — to get to my market. It's an ancient fruit, the origins of which can be traced back to pre-biblical times. It was first cultivated in the mountains of Northeastern China as early as 2200 B.C., according to food historian Waverly Root. From there it traveled to Mesopotamia (it was said to grow in the hanging gardens of Babylon) and the Mediterranean. Spanish missionaries are credited with bringing the apricot to California in the 18th century.
Apricot trees require a temperate climate to thrive, Root says, with a cool winter allowing for a dormant period. However, the tree blooms early and is highly susceptible to frost, which can make it difficult to cultivate.
There are many varieties of apricots, with colorful names such as Lorna, Ambercot, Blenheim and Goldbar. Some are large and plush and uniformly orange-colored and some are small, with a rosy cast. Then there are the new hybrids such as red velvet, with its near-black skin — actually a cross between an apricot and a plum.
Apricots are best when picked ripe from the tree. While it's easy to tell if an apricot is ripe, it can be tough to tell whether it's good. Look for fruits that have a deep orange-gold color rather than those that are pale orange or yellow. They should be plump and firm, with just a little softness to them. If they're hard, they're not ripe; if they're squishy, they've gone too far. Ripe apricots have a lovely, unmistakable floral fragrance, so give it the sniff test.
Look for fruits that have a deep orange-gold color rather than those that are pale orange or yellow.
Having said all that, there have been times, usually in grocery stores, where I thought I was buying decent apricots and have been sorely disappointed when I took a bite. You're likely to have better luck at a farmers market that sells locally grown fruit. Taste a sample if you can; it's really the only way to know for sure.
Besides being delicious, apricots are packed with nutrition — vitamins A and C, plus fiber and potassium. In the kitchen, they are versatile, and as much as I love them (the good ones) raw, cooking them caramelizes their sugars and deepens their flavor, making them even more delightful. They are as comfortable sidled up to a roast as they are nestled in a sweet pastry crust. In savory dishes they go especially well with lamb, pork and chicken.
But I like them best on the sweet side, in a pie or tart, or cooked down to a thick, glossy jam. The sweet, flowery aroma of that jam cooking on the stove top takes me right back to the carefree days of childhood summer. It's a good place to be.
Recipe: Strawberry-Apricot Pie
For a brief moment in early summer, strawberry and apricot seasons overlap. That is when you should — must — make this pie. It's a harmony of sweet and tangy flavors, set off by a buttery crust. Plus, the filling, when baked, is the color of a tropical sunset.
It was not my genius idea to put these two fruits together. For that I must credit the Roches, a trio of folk-singing sisters who, years ago, wrote a song called "The Troubles," which includes the lyrics, "I hope they have health food in Dublin, and strawberry-apricot pie. If they don't have those things in Dublin, we'll probably die."
A hearty thanks to the Roches for the inspiration.
Makes one 9-inch pie
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
About 5 tablespoons ice-cold water
3 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered lengthwise
3 cups diced fresh apricots (no need to peel)
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
To make the crust, combine the flour and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse briefly. Scatter the butter around the work bowl and pulse until the mixture has formed coarse crumbs. With the motor running, drizzle in the water and process just until the dough begins to come together.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat it into two disks, one slightly larger than the other. Wrap each disk tightly in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, gently mix together the strawberries, apricots, lemon juice, sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Roll the larger piece into an 11-inch disk and gently press it into a 9-inch pie plate, leaving the overhang. Spoon the filling into the pastry-lined pie plate. Roll the smaller piece of dough into a 10-inch disk and, using a fluted pastry wheel, cut the disk into 10 (3/4-inch-thick) strips. Arrange the strips over the filling in a lattice pattern and trim off the ends. Fold the overhang over and pinch it to seal it and form a decorative rim.
Set the pie on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 40-50 minutes, until the crust is golden-brown and the filling is bubbly and thick. Serve warm with a little cold heavy cream poured over each slice or a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.
Recipe: Broiled Apricots With Honey Mascarpone
This is the dish to trot out when you have no time to make dessert but still want to serve one. It takes less than 10 minutes to assemble from start to finish but I can assure you no one will be disappointed. Broiling the apricots concentrates their sweet-tart flavor. A dollop of honey mascarpone on top adds just a touch of richness. If restraint is your thing, use non-fat Greek yogurt in place of the mascarpone.
Makes 4 servings
8 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
2 tablespoons honey
6 ripe apricots
2 tablespoons butter, cut into 12 pieces
2 tablespoons sugar
Dash of cinnamon
Position an oven rack 4 inches from the broiler and turn the broiler on.
In a small bowl, whisk together the mascarpone and honey until well-blended. Set aside.
Gently pry the apricots in half or use a paring knife to split them open. Remove and discard the pits.
Set the apricot halves, cut side up, on a small, rimmed baking sheet or shallow broiler pan. Place a piece of butter in each of the apricot cavities. Sprinkle the sugar on the apricot halves and sprinkle a little cinnamon over each half.
Broil the apricot halves for 3 minutes, or until the sugar begins to caramelize and the apricots are just beginning to char around the edges. Remove from the oven.
Spoon the apricots, three halves per person, into dessert bowls and top each serving with a dollop of honey mascarpone. Serve while still warm.
Recipe: Apricot-Anise Jam
If you are new to jam making, apricots are a great fruit to start with. You don't have to peel them as their thin skin melts away during cooking. And there is no need to add the jelling agent pectin, since the fruit thickens nicely on its own. The optional addition of aniseed in this recipe imparts a delicate licorice note to the sweet-tart flavor of the apricots. Spread this jam on your morning toast, or use it to make jam cookies, a jam tart or, on the savory side, to glaze a pork roast.
Makes about 1 pint (2 cups)
1 1/2 pounds ripe apricots (12-14 medium)
3/4 to 1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons orange or lemon juice
3 small strips of lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon aniseed
A 3-inch-by-3-inch square of cheesecloth
Cut the apricots in half and remove the pits. Cut each half into 4 pieces and put the pieces in a heavy-bottomed nonreactive pot. (I use an enamel-coated cast-iron pot.) Sprinkle 3/4 cup sugar over the apricots and add the orange or lemon juice and the lemon peel. Gently stir to combine.
Mound the aniseed on the square of cheesecloth and tie it into a bundle with kitchen string. Toss the bundle into the pot.
Set the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until most of the fruit has broken down and the mixture has begun to thicken. Taste and add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar if the mixture is too tart. Cook, stirring, for an additional 10 minutes or until thickened to a jam-like consistency. (Reduce the heat to medium-low if the mixture is sputtering too much.)
To test for doneness, spoon a small amount of the mixture into a small bowl or plate and set in the freezer for 5 minutes. Tilt the bowl. If the jam is thick and stays mounded, it is done. If it is runny, continue to cook for another 5 minutes or so, until sufficiently thickened.
Remove the pot from the heat and let the jam cool slightly. Retrieve and discard the cheesecloth bundle. You can fish out the lemon peel as well if you like, but I usually just leave it in (it's hard to locate). Ladle the jam into two clean 1/2-pint jars. Cap the jars and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Note: You can process the jam for a longer shelf life: Ladle the hot jam into 2 sterilized glass jars. Cap the jars with sterilized lids and rings and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. Store the jars in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.
Recipe: Cheryl's Apricot Frangipane Galette
Cheryl Sternman Rule is the creator of the award-winning blog and author of the cookbookRipe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables (Running Press, 2012). The recipe for this rustic, almond-spiked tart is adapted from her book. The rich, delicate crust is spread with a thick, creamy layer of almond filling and then topped with apricot slices. It's baked in a hot oven just until the natural sugars in the apricots caramelize and the slices of fruit turn juicy, with barely singed tips.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 cup almond meal (also called almond flour)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
9 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces
3/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
2 tablespoons ice water
1/2 cup almond meal
1/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 large egg, separated
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
Pinch of kosher salt
4-5 apricots (about 10 ounces), pitted and quartered
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
For the crust, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, almond meal, salt, sugar and cold butter on low speed until clumps begin to form, about 1 minute. Add the almond extract and ice water and continue mixing until the dough comes together in a mass, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a large sheet of plastic wrap, flatten into a 4 1/2-inch disk, wrap tightly and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Make the frangipane in the same bowl. Beat the almond meal, sugar, butter, egg yolk (reserve the egg white for brushing on the pastry later), almond extract and salt on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Refrigerate, covered, until the crust is ready.
Line a heavy rimmed baking sheet with parchment. In a large bowl, toss the apricots with the sugar and lemon juice. On a floured countertop, roll out the chilled dough to a rough 11-inch circle. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Spread the frangipane thickly over the dough, leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Scatter the apricots, cut side up atop the frangipane, scraping any juices from the bowl on top. (Do not pile the apricots in a heap. If they don't fit, eat any leftover pieces separately.) Fold in the pastry, pleating as you go, leaving a 4- to 5-inch circle of fruit exposed. Freeze on the baking sheet for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Whisk the reserved egg white until frothy. Brush it on the exposed pastry border. Bake the galette in the center of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and the frangipane is set. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack. Allow the galette to cool to room temperature (at least 30 minutes). Because the pastry is extremely delicate, slice and serve directly from the baking sheet.
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