- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Fresh apricots — those blushing blonds — are smaller and sweeter this year because of heat spikes that fooled the California residents into thinking it was later in the season than it was. So they released their sugar and started ripening early, before they had grown big and plump.

That’s OK, though. In exchange, they arrived about a week earlier than usual and are, so far, promising to stay around until mid-July. (By then, apricots from Pennsylvania and Maryland should be in Washington-area farmers markets.)

Apricots originally were grown in China. Cuttings of this golden fruit made their way across the Persian empire to the Mediterranean Sea, where they flourished. The Spanish explorers get credit for introducing the apricot to the New World, and specifically to California, where they were planted in the mission gardens. In 1792, in an area south of San Francisco, the first major production of apricots was recorded. Conditions were just about perfect.

About 95 percent of the apricots grown in the United States today come from California. Most of the harvest is canned, dried or frozen, leaving only about 28 percent for the fresh market. Of the 20 or so varieties that are shipped, many have names as exotic as movie stars. Say hello to Lorna, Jordanne, Helena, Poppy, Katy and Goldbar.

Apricots’ soft flesh makes them difficult to ship, and some stores don’t carry them because they are so perishable. So you’d better buy when you see them: The California season is only about two months long, usually from mid-May to early July.

Choose apricots that are slightly soft with some fragrance. Hard, odorless ones will not ripen further, and if that is all that’s available, don’t bother to buy.

Hold one in your hand. Apricots are about the size of golf balls. The pale orange fruit is often tinged with a rosy hue, and the skin has the slightest fuzz. Bite into it. The flavor is subtle, almost a nonevent, with a delicacy often lost on folks who prefer the vibrant flavors of, say, mangoes or peaches.

Oh, but something happens when apricots are cooked. Their flavor becomes tangy, tart and intense. Pastry chefs love to use apricot jam as a cake filling or as a brilliant glaze for tarts and cakes.

Here are some ways to use fresh apricots.

• Broiled apricots. Halve and seed the fruit; place cup side up on a pie plate or baking pan. Into the center of each, place 1/4 teaspoon butter and 1/4 teaspoon brown sugar. Place halves under the broiler, and heat them until the filling is bubbly and the fruit is beginning to brown. Remove pan from oven, and with a pastry brush, brush the buttery sugar mixture all over the surface of the fruit. Return the pan to the oven, and continue to broil until the surface is nicely browned. Serve with custard sauce, ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.

• Poached apricots. If you poach them too long, they’ll turn to mush. If that happens, take heart. Add a bit more sugar, and cook the mixture down a bit longer until the fruit reaches jam consistency. There’s no need for added pectin because apricots supply their own. Spread the jam on buttered walnut-raisin bread for a special treat.

Or take that apricot jam; sweeten it with honey, if necessary; and use it as a cake filling or topping for otherwise bland desserts such as panna cotta, ice cream and custard.

• Frozen apricots. Plunge whole apricots into boiling water for about 30 seconds; peel, pit, and halve or slice. Then freeze in syrup made from 2 cups sugar and 5 cups water. Add 2 ounces ascorbic acid for each 21/2 cups syrup.

• Make apricot cobbler. The easiest way to do this is to mix 1 tablespoon cornstarch with a cup of sugar and a pinch each of cinnamon and salt. Toss the sugar mixture with 4 cups halved, seeded and peeled (if desired) apricots, and place in an 8-inch baking dish or quiche pan. (To tint the juices a nice pink hue, add about 10 seeded sweet cherries to the apricot mixture.) Place the sugared fruit in a preheated 425-degree oven while you make the topping. For the topping, make a Bisquick shortcake dough according to the directions on the box.

Remove the hot fruit from the oven, and place blobs of dough over the apricots. Bake as directed on the package, about 15 minutes. By the time the topping is done, the apricots should be softened and their juices thickened and bubbling.

• Bake a pie. Apricot pie rarely shows up on restaurant menus. Add a few seeded, dark, sweet cherries for color and textural interest. Dried cranberries could serve the same purpose, but cherries are preferred when they are fresh and in season. Serve the warm pie with vanilla ice cream to contrast temperatures and balance the tartness of the fruit.

Poached apricots

Serve the fruit with ice cream or plain cake.

After the fruit has been eaten, save any remaining tart-sweet syrup to mix into soda or ginger ale for a refreshing fizzy drink. You can also add the leftover syrup to a yogurt, banana or other berry smoothie.

1 cup sugar

1 small cinnamon stick

8 to 10 apricots, halved and seeded

teaspoon vanilla ice cream, custard sauce or sweetened whipped cream

In a deep, wide skillet, combine sugar with 3/4 cup water over medium heat; stir to dissolve sugar. Add cinnamon stick and apricots. Reduce heat to low, and gently poach apricots until they soften, about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the fruit so that it cooks evenly.

Using a slotted spoon, remove apricots to a serving dish.

Raise heat under the skillet, and reduce syrup until it is somewhat thickened.

Remove from heat, add vanilla and allow syrup to cool a little before pouring it over the poached apricots. Because the fruit is very tart, serve with ice cream, custard sauce or sweetened whipped cream.

Makes 4 servings.

Fresh apricot pie

My grandma always made a traditional double-crust pie. Sometimes I make a lattice-topped pie to show off the colors of the fruits.

11/4 cups sugar, plus a little more for top

1 tablespoons cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon mace

1/8 teaspoon salt

4 cups apricots, halved, seeded and quartered

cup dark sweet cherries, halved and seeded

Pastry for a double-crust 9-inch pie

1 tablespoon butter

Vanilla or honey ice cream

In a large bowl, combine 11/4 cups sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, mace and salt; mix well. Add apricots and cherries, stir to mix and set aside to allow juices to form.

Roll out pastry. Line a 9-inch pie plate with half of pastry. Add the filling. Dot with butter. Moisten the rim of the pastry with water. Add the top crust, trim the edges evenly, and flute the rim. Brush the pastry with water, and sprinkle it with additional sugar. Make a few slashes in the crust to allow steam to escape.

Place the pie on a drip pan, such as a pizza pan, to catch any overflow juices. Bake in preheated 425-degree oven for 15 minutes.

Reduce heat to 375; continue baking 45 to 60 minutes or until the pie has bubbled for about 10 minutes.

Allow pie to cool to room temperature before serving to make sure the filling sets. Serve with vanilla or honey ice cream.

Makes about 6 servings.

Fresh apricot Thai salad

This recipe is just the ticket in late spring and early summer, when apricots are at their peak.

2 cups pitted and sliced fresh apricots

2 cups diced cooked chicken

1 cup peeled and sliced cucumber (see note)

1 cup bean sprouts, rinsed

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 cup vegetable oil

teaspoon chili oil

Leafy salad greens for lining plates

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped peanuts

1 lime, cut into wedges

In a large bowl, combine apricots, chicken, cucumber and bean sprouts; set aside.

In a small bowl, combine vinegar, cilantro and sugar; whisk in oils. Toss salad with vinaigrette, and arrange it on plates lined with salad greens. Sprinkle with peanuts; garnish with lime wedges.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: Cucumber can be seeded, if desired.

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