On days when the stone flags are too hot for bare feet, I cover them with a faded, threadbare rug dragged out from the hall. It doubles as a picnic cloth, set with plates of sheep’s milk cheeses, a glass jar of honey from a friend’s bees and a bowl of rust-freckled apricots the size of blackbird eggs. We picnic, on the floor, a change from sitting at the table, our lunch shaded by the leaves of the fig tree.
I pick up apricots from any one of the local Turkish greengrocers whose fruit seems cheaper and riper than I can buy elsewhere. Deeper in colour and with flesh the scent of roses, these fruits have none of the woolliness I hear other shoppers bang on about. I often find the smaller the apricot, the better it is. If the fruit isn’t quite ripe, I nurse it towards perfection in a brown paper bag in a warm room. (I’m sure you know a ripe banana added to the bag will help them on their way.)
The kitchen has smelled of apricot jam this week – the most easily made of fruit preserves and with a flavour true to its fruit. I do think that letting the fruit lie under a snow of granulated sugar the night before boiling makes for a better jam. The trick cuts the cooking time so the halved fruit keeps its shape, making a jam more akin to the softly set, whole-fruit preserves of the Middle East.
Looser in texture, this is jam to be eaten with a teaspoon rather than spread with a knife. Jam that glistens in its jar, that you can serve in tiny glasses with a pot of yoghurt, dipping your spoon first into one, then the other. It is good with cheese, too.
The apricots I haven’t preserved have been stewed for dessert. We served them with a cream cheese pudding – a sort of warm cheesecake – breaking open its fluffy crust and sliding a puddle of warm fruit into the middle.
Letting the stoned fruit rest overnight under a blanket of sugar is a trick worth following. The sugar takes up some of the apricots’ juice and softens the fruit. The cooking time is reduced and the flavour seems deeper. Some cooks leave a stone or two in the jam, for the vague almond flavour they are said to impart, but I’m not convinced. Use a sugar thermometer perched in the jam from the start. If you don’t have one, then chill a couple of saucers in the fridge before you start and follow the instructions below. Makes 3 x 350ml jars
apricots 1kg, firm, almost ripe
granulated sugar 700g
lemon 1, large
Wipe the apricots, remove any stems, then slice in half and remove their stones. Put the fruit in a large mixing bowl, then sprinkle the granulated sugar over them. Cut the lemon in half, squeeze the juice over the fruit, then toss everything together with a large spoon, so the sugar is wet with juice. Cover the bowl and set aside overnight in a cool place.
Put a large, heavy-based saucepan over a low to moderate heat. Add the fruit and sugar and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and leave to bubble gently for about 20 minutes. The jam is ready when it reaches 105C on a sugar thermometer.
(To test without a thermometer, put a couple of saucers in the fridge. As the fruits becomes tender, put 1 tsp of jam on one of the cold saucers. Put it back in the fridge for 2 minutes and, if a skin has formed, the jam is ready.)
Ladle into sterilised jars and seal tightly.
Cream cheese puddings, apricot sauce
Sugaring the apricots and setting them aside for half an hour will draw out their juices and give the syrup a richer flavour. Once ready, the puddings won’t hold, they will fall apart by the minute. Though less impressive, they will still taste wonderful, like just-baked cheesecakes. Serves 4
For the sauce:
caster sugar 2 tbsp
honey 2 tbsp
For the dish:
butter a little
caster sugar a little
For the pudding:
caster sugar 50g
cream cheese 250g, full-fat
vanilla extract 1 tsp
icing sugar a little to sprinkle over the top
You will need 4 china or metal ramekins, each holding 200-250ml.
Halve and stone the apricots, then put them in a stainless-steel saucepan with the caster sugar and honey and set aside for half an hour. Lightly butter the ramekins, then sprinkle with sugar.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
Separate the eggs, putting the yolks into the bowl of a food mixer and the whites into a large mixing bowl. Add the caster sugar to the egg yolks and beat. Then, on a slow speed, mix in the cream cheese, cornflour and vanilla extract. Take care not to overmix. You should have a thick, vanilla-scented cream.
Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, then fold into the cream-cheese mixture. Do this quickly, but gently, making sure there are no lumps of unmixed egg white.
Place the sugared ramekins on a baking sheet, divide the mixture between them, then bake for 20-25 minutes until risen and cracked on the surface. While the puddings are cooking, put the apricots over a moderate heat, pour in the water and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and bubble gently for about 10 minutes until completely soft. Crush the fruit lightly with a fork to a coarse purée.
Remove the puddings from the oven and serve immediately, spooning the apricot sauce into the middle of the puddings as you go.
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