The Blushing Apricot

Published Summer, 2008
Edible Portland

Every apricot I ate last summer was more luscious than the last. My memory of the season is that it was deliciously long, and full of astoundingly good fruit that made my jaw drop, then quickly snap shut, to savor the exquisite textures and intense flavors. Like a sweetly fragrant peach that sends sticky juices dripping down wrists and chins, the faintly rouged cheeks and heady aroma of apricots tell me we’re in the thick of summer.

The sensory appeal of apricots is undeniable. When compared to their stone fruit brethren — peaches, nectarines, plums and cherries — they are somehow more exotic. Maybe it’s the velvety smooth skin or the concentrated flavor, round and full of honey. Perhaps it’s the way the two deeply orange halves fall away easily from the smooth stone between them, or the surprise inside that pit: a small, almond-shaped seed with a subtle perfume and delicate flavor reminiscent of almonds.

The seed of an apricot stone, called noyau (French for “pit material”), contains oil similar in flavor to bitter almond oil. Because it is far less expensive, confectioners often use it to flavor sweets. Eau de Noyaux, a liqueur manufactured in France, is made from the seeds, as is Amaretto, the famous Italian liqueur that combines noyau with bitter almonds. (Like bitter almonds, noyau — which includes apple seeds and apricot, cherry, and peach pits — contains infinitesimal traces of cyanide. You’d get sick eating the fruit to get to the pits long before the pits themselves would have any ill effect. However, if this is a concern, lightly toast the seeds to denature the cyanide.)

Use noyau as an accent in recipes that call for almond meal. Finely grind a few and add them to Parisian-style macaroons or a crust made with almond meal. Use them in a frangipane (almond cream) filling or to flavor custards and ice cream.

Seasonal and highly perishable, apricots are a fleeting luxury that peak in July when 90% of the fresh crop has gone to market. California has been the nation’s top producer of apricots since 1792, when tree cuttings were introduced by Spanish explorers who planted them in their mission gardens along the Pacific slope of the state. Today most of California’s apricots come from the San Joaquin Valley. Varieties you’re likely to find in the Northwest include Tilton, Blenheim (or Royal), and Puget Gold, a prolific bearer of large, elongated yellow-gold fruit developed in Washington specifically to beat the rains and frosts of the region.

Because they tend to ripen unevenly, an apricot may be soft and jam-like on its sun-kissed side, and hard on the other. Look for plump, firm fruit with reasonably uniform color and a blush that begins at the stem end and spreads down and across the cheeks. A ripe apricot should yield ever so slightly to the touch. Prevent over-ripening by keeping them cool, or storing those that are ready to eat in the refrigerator for up to one week.

When you’ve had your fill of fresh apricots, there are all kinds of ways to extend the short season: Can them, or halve and pit them for the freezer, where they hold up beautifully. Poach, roast, and bake with them. Make brandy and preserves. As is the case with peaches, when apricots are good, they are very, very good. And when they are less stellar than last year’s crop, they still make gorgeous jam.

Their full, honeyed flavor and heavy, sweet perfume are balanced by an acidity that makes apricots equally suited to cooking and baking, in both sweet and savory applications. My favorite summer salad combines warm orzo (dressed with a “vinaigrette” made from olive oil, grated fresh ginger, a squeeze of lemon juice, and salt) with diced fresh apricots, scallions, cilantro and sliced almonds. Basil is delicious too, especially if pine nuts stand in for the almonds. Squishy, overripe apricots cooked down with sweet onions, honey, and mustard seeds become a glaze that brightens pork and chicken, while firm, ripe fruit shines in a salsa with lime juice, jalapeño, and cilantro, for grilled fish.

When it comes to sweets, lavender and lemon verbena are among the apricot’s loveliest sidekicks; use them to infuse a simple syrup for sorbet or poaching. Apricots make for a gorgeous upside-down cake and a fine tarte tatin, looking for all the world like egg yolks perched on a caramel canvas. The marriage of apricots, honey, and almonds is pure Provençal, a tasty triumvirate on a par with other heavenly combinations that recall summer: BLTs and Negronis (Campari, gin and vermouth). So here’s to a season — short but sweet — of three’s: apricot ice cream, sorbet, and gelato; apricot cobbler, crumble, and crisp; and apricot tarts — frangipane, custard, and Provençal.

Recipe for Apricot Tart Provencal with Almonds and Honey