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IMG_8555 Apricots can go either way. Flabby, woollen and pointless or lush, piquant, tender and – in the case of apricot jam – unforgettable. Also, like plums, apricots are blissful with chocolate. I came over all funny when I realized this. I’d love to know who originally dreamt up apricot and chocolate tart, and give him/her a medal. I think the chocolate brings out the spice and sweet acid in the fruit. Whatever. No glossy cooking terms can possibly do justice to how successful it is. It’s the Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti of food marriages. He’s the chocolate.

Apricot compote is brilliant as an almost-jam. It is also divine on its own, or with a plain summer cake. Ice cream also works – chilly tufts of the stuff melting into syrup – and almost any flavour. I think apricots are one of those stone fruits enhanced by cooking. Particularly poaching, which brings out the fruit’s complexity and freshness. It blooms under heat; its sharpness is mellowed, but still there is edge, and the texture becomes burstingly fragile.

Now to the difference between one apricot and another. One word: water. Dry farmed, however counter-intuitive this may seem, is the reason why the best apricots have that intense concentration of flavour. If apricot trees are too wet, the fruit will be big and puffy, and the texture like eating someone’s earlobes. Arguably the finest apricots, at least in this area, are Blenheims. Their proud owners – or one of the very few – are Eric and Helle Todd from Forcefield Farms in Santa Paula. Their apricot trees grow in a dry riverbed, the fruit is small and has an intense aroma of honeysuckle. This season has been tough on them, and the crop is depleted due to an early frost, but they will be bringing out their little jewels in a week or so. Track them down at your local farmers’ market.

Royals are also very good indeed; some are almost as small as a pea, and rosy-cheeked. These tangy apricots go well with goat’s cheese; Leonora, from Leon in Spain, is gorgeously dense, creamy and cave-like.

It is an early fruit, precocious in name and nature – the word apricot comes from the Latin praecox – and its blossoms often fall prey to the cold. More fragile than peaches, ‘cots have none of their glamour or following, but they are a cook’s dream. I had to do some serious whittling to arrive at these two recipes.

Poached apricots

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book

About 12-15 apricots, whole

2 cups (500ml) water

1 scant cup (200g) cane sugar (or maple sugar)

2-3 cardamom pods

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

Zest of an orange

3-4 apricot kernels (optional)

Method

Poach the apricots gently until soft and tender, but still holding their shape (about 15 -20 minutes) with all the other ingredients. Remove the apricots with a slotted spoon, and discard the cardamom pods and star anise. Wash and dry the cinnamon stick to use another time. Reduce the syrup by half by bringing it to a boil. Add the grated zest of an orange, and pour the syrup over the fruit. Cool and chill. Remind people there are stones.

Extracting the apricot kernels: this is not obligatory but if you’re feeling game, you need a hammer and some sort of cushion. I used an oven mitt which I placed over the apricot stone. It muffled the sound, and also stopped the bits flying all over the room. Always try one before adding them to the syrup; some kernels are very bitter.

I understand the antipathy many feel towards putting chocolate and fruit together, but I hope you’ll make an exception here. This is the companion to the chocolate and plum tart that fell apart in the last post. I’ve since tarted up the pastry – removing the amaretti entirely – and this one stayed whole. I include the recipe for the amaretti crust if you feel like giving it a go, though it will melt into nothingness on your spoon and will not be coerced onto a cake slice, even for money.

This is an idea from Sam and Sam Clark, of Moro fame, and in their tart they use apricot paste called ‘amradeen’ – a  Syrian and Lebanese speciality. I’m using poached apricots in its stead, but dried ones also work. Serve with a few extra ‘cots on the side and some crème fraîche.

Chocolate and apricot tart

Adapted from Moro, Sam and Sam Clark

For the filling

180g (1 cup) poached apricots or paste/amradeen

2 tbs lemon juice

135g (9tbs) unsalted butter, cubed

110g (4oz) dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids) broken into bits

2 large eggs at room temperature

60g (¼ cup) cane sugar

For the pastry

Adapted from Rick Stein’s Food Heroes

50g (2oz) toasted slivered almonds

175g (6oz) plain flour

A pinch of sea salt

175g (6oz) butter, softened

65g (2½oz) cane sugar

1 medium egg, beaten

½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon

For the pastry

Put the toasted almonds into a coffee grinder or spice mill and blitz until fine but with some texture still. Mix with the flour, salt and cinnamon and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat in half the egg, followed by the flour mixture and enough of the remaining beaten egg to bind the mixture. Knead briefly until smooth. Pat into a round disc, cover in plastic wrap and chill for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F. Carefully roll out the pastry between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and use to line a greased 8ins (20cm) loose-bottomed tart tin. Prick the base here and there and chill for about 30 minutes. Line the pastry case with greaseproof or parchment paper and baking beans (or rice) and bake blind for 10-15 minutes (check at ten). Then remove the paper and bake for a further 5 minutes. It should look and feel crisp and golden. Remove and leave to cool.

For the filling

Press the poached apricots through a sieve. Add the resulting puree to a pan with the lemon juice and a few splashes of the syrup. Heat gently until the mixture thickens. Stir to prevent the puree sticking to the bottom of the pan. The mixture should taste slightly tart. Spread the puréed apricot over the base of the cooled tart shell. Leave for a few minutes – the apricot will form a slight skin.

While this is going on, put the butter and chocolate in a bowl over barely simmering water. Whisk the eggs and sugar together until pale and thick and fluffy. When the chocolate has melted, take the bowl off the heat and fold in the egg mixture. Give this a good stir, bringing the chocolate up and over, until it is a uniform deep, dark brown. Pour this into the tart shell and smooth out any peaks and troughs with a spatula. Bake on the middle shelf of a pre-heated oven for about 25 minutes. There should still be a slight wobble – not too firm, glossily dark but with just the beginnings of a crust. Serve with some poached apricots, ice cream or crème fraîche and a slick of the poaching syrup.

If you insistamaretti crust

200g (1 cup) amaretti biscuits

80g (5tbs) butter, melted

Put the amaretti biscuits in a freezer bag and give them a few whacks with a rolling pin. Mix with the melted butter. Tightly press the amaretti into a tart tin and chill until needed. When you’re ready, put this in a pre-heated oven (350F/180C) and bake until the crust is nicely browned. Continue as above.

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