#18 : Apricot-Cherry Tart
Stone fruit season begins!
The arrival of apricots (the first of all the stone fruit to appear) is a bittersweet time for me. While I'm thrilled at the idea of what will follow (strawberries, and then all the stone fruit such as cherries, plums, peaches and nectarines) I also heave a sigh for a delicious fruit I'll never have again.
One particular year, over a decade ago, the IGA supermarket in Greenport didn't stock apricots. Instead, I was surprised to see (between the oranges still hanging on from winter and the guaranteed-to-be-tasteless strawberries shipped in from California and Mexico) something called a CandyCot. It looked like the usual apricot ("my favorite fruit," which I say about whatever fruit happens to be in season) but came in a fancy plastic box lined with a ridged bottom (similar to a carton of eggs) that held exactly one layer of golden fruit. They cost more than the usual apricots, too, but I was curious, and bought two pounds and made them into ice cream. This may have been "the best ice cream I've ever made" (see the comment above about which fruit is currently in season) and I raced to the store the next day and snatched up the last two crates and made them into a pie, which was just fruit heaven.
I looked for CandyCots the following year without any success, and I am pretty sure I found some online and paid a fortune for two pounds by mail order (the shipping cost more than the fruit.) Then...CandyCots vanished, never to be seen again, though I would look, "fruitlessly" (sorry, had to) every year.
Turns out a fruit grower in Modesto had tinkered with apricots for six years and finally came up with some hybrid called (naturally) the CandyCot. You can guess why - the hybrid fruit was so amazingly sweet, "just like candy," but with a fruit sweetness rather than a cloyingly sweet sugary flavor. It was like an apricot bomb - concentrated, rich and deep.
Sound too good to be true? Well, it was. Sadly, what made the fruit so sweet was also its downfall, as the hybrid trees were unsuited to the California climate. The grower ended up ripping out all his trees and replanting them with regular apricot trees. The CandyCot, last seen in 2012, was no more. So, while I am happy to find apricots (especially any grown locally which have more flavor than those who end up in the supermarket), just knowing I'll never have a CandyCot again saddens me. I sigh, pick myself up and dust myself off, and plunge into eating apricots.
How do you make already-fabulous apricots taste better? Add cherries...or frangipane. Or you could go all out and add both, which I recommend. David Lebovitz, a baker and expert on my favorite things (fruit, chocolate, Paris, the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, and cocktails) has several cookbooks, and I will certainly wait while you pause reading this and go online to buy all his books, right this second. You will thank me for this. His website is here, and while the site connects you to buy quickly from Amazon, I'll get on my soapbox and say you should instead go to your favorite independent bookstore (Powell's City of Books in Oregon and Nowhere Bookshop in Texas are two of my favorites and have his books in stock. ) Jeff Bezos has enough money, don't you think?
Even though I know better, every year when sweet cherries appear in the store (shipped from California, Washington, or...wherever) I have to buy some. It's a ritual, much like drinking Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November....you just know that honoring the tradition will probably be better than the actual taste. These cherries weren't the best, but after I rinsed them and pitted them, I tossed them with the apricots in some sugar and kirsch, and let them mascerate - an hour later it was amazing how much better they tasted!
More advice, whether you want it or not. If you're going to pit more than the 20 or so cherries you'll toss into this tart, I advise buying a cherry pitter (seen above.) For years I persisted in pitting cherries with a sharp knife, saying it couldn't be easier. I was wrong. A cherry pitter is much faster than using a knife, and it comes in handy every year when I harvest sour cherries off my own tree and augment those with yet more sour cherries from Wickham's Fruit Farm. Sour cherry season lasts a week or less, and Jeff has learned to set aside a day or two, allowing me full kitchen access so I can buy the cherries, wash and pit them, freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet overnight, and then toss the frozen cherries into Ziplock bags. It's a time consuming process, usually in unseasonable heat, and every year I ask myself why I'm doing this. The sour cherry pie I bake sometime later (usually in the middle of winter when I'm craving fruit) reminds me exactly why I worked so hard. So why make it more difficult? Buy a cherry pitter already! Lecture over.
Just beware of the infamous "double cherry" seen above. This cherry always, and I mean always, has two pits, and the second one is always notoriously hard to extract.
Stone fruits always exude lots of liquid in baking. Pie recipes will often call for the addition of flour or cornstarch to the fruit to prevent the pie filling from getting too soupy. After several experiments, I found the addition of a tablespoon or two of instant tapioca, finely ground in a spice grinder, adds the right texture to the fruit without the gumminess that flour and cornstarch often add. I use an old coffee grinder that we save just for grinding spices. If I last used that grinder for something savory (cumin or coriander) that wouldn't improve the taste of a sweet pie, I first grind some brown rice, which removes any residue the spices have left, and then grind the tapioca.
Here I have the fruit macerating in the sugar and kirsch, with the ground tapioca hanging out nearby, just waiting. I recommend not adding the tapioca to the fruit until just before baking, because the leftover fruit-infused kirsch (that you don't want in the pie) makes a lovely post-dinner sip, and the addition of the tapioca doesn't improve the taste.
Another boozy tip - save the apricot pits! You can harvest the inner pit (using a nutcracker) and add that to vodka in a Mason jar, and it makes a tasty liqueur. One thing to note is that you must bake the apricot pits in an oven at 350 degrees for a half an hour before cooling them, extracting them and adding to the vodka. There's a cyanide residue within stone fruit pits; baking the pits kills the toxin. Several experts agree that the liqueur is then safe, but Jeff avoids any liqueur I've made from stone fruit (maybe he's remembering the evil character Jonathan that I portrayed in the play Arsenic and Old Lace.)
Frangipane is also called almond paste, which you can buy already made in the store. I find the store stuff way too sweet and instead make my own. It's a simple combination of sliced almonds, sugar, and egg, butter and a bit of flour tossed in the food processor.
The David Lebovitz frangipane recipe is above, with Jeff's notes on how to make your own almond paste. David recommends the frangipane in a pie underneath the layer of fruit, or on a tart as the topping. I chose to use the almond topping in place of a top pie crust.
The Verdict: Summer is here!
Jeff is still fighting off the last of a terrible summer cold, and went to bed early without any tart (proof that he still wasn't feeling well). He was a bit surprised to find a huge (double) piece of tart missing, and I had to confess - the tart was so good that I went back for a second slice. The tart is good enough to make me forget about CandyCots....well, almost.
This is the frangipane in the food processor, followed by the finished product.
Don't forget to add the tapioca to the fruit at the last minute!
While next time for appearances I would probably use the frangipane as an inner layer under the fruit, and top the pie with a second crust, it sure was delicious.