Few things capture summer’s carefree spirit like a perfect piece of fruit. Eating berries off the vine, still warm from the sun, is a pastoral trope. In the hot weather, nothing tastes as good as a sweet, fragrant peach, a juicy bite of watermelon or, as William Carlos Williams once noted, an ice-cold plum.
And then there are apricots.
The apricot is not an instantly lovable fruit. To eat one raw is to imagine how Goldilocks must have felt: it’s usually too hard or too soft, too dry, too mealy, too tart, too flavorless. And then, every once in a while, one will be just right. So when a friend mentioned that she always passed apricots by in the markets because she was never quite sure what to do with them, I knew what she meant.
Unlike other summer fruits, apricots need to be cooked for their charms to be fully revealed. Their flavors are improved by reducing and concentrating, which is why they’re so good dried. Apricots are friendly with their genetic cousins, almonds and cherries, and they pair well with aromatics both sweet (vanilla, honey) and savory (lavender, thyme, rosemary).
One of the easiest ways to cook apricots requires no recipe. Sprinkle a few spoonfuls of sugar or honey in a pan, cut the orbs in half, remove the pits and cook them cut side down over medium heat until they brown. Flip them over, turn off the heat and let them sit in the pan for a few minutes to finish warming through. You can serve them immediately at this point, or purée them with a little water and sugar to make a sauce or sorbet base.
An informal survey at a recent farmers’ market yielded a fairly uniform response to the burning question of what home cooks do with apricots: they make jam, a traditional technique about which, rather shamefully, I knew almost nothing. This seemed like the perfect time to learn, so I bought a case of apricots and headed to the cool, quiet kitchen of June Taylor, a preserve maker in Berkeley, Calif.
As we tasted several forms of preserved apricots, Taylor explained the importance of sorting the fruit. She poaches the firm ones and turns the rest into conserves or its thick, spreadable kin, butter. As much as I loved her apricots suspended in lavender syrup and her conserves (the apricots first macerated with orange zest and sugar for a few days to break down the fruit and draw out the pectin before cooking), it was the butter that I couldn’t stop eating; it tasted like the concentrated essence of apricot.
The process is simple. Halve the unpeeled apricots and cook them slowly in a covered pot, stirring so they don’t stick, until the fruit is very soft. Pass through a food mill, add sugar and return to the pot, heating the mixture slowly until it boils. Cooking the butter in a deep, wide pot helps minimize spattering during the last stage of cooking, the importance of which became painfully apparent when Taylor handed me a wooden spoon to stir the purée that she had brought to a thick, violent boil. I had declined her offer of a pair of kitchen mitts, and as I stirred I watched with morbid fascination as napalmlike bits erupted from the surface and clung to my skin, forming a network of angry welts. Nonmasochists should wear gloves.
A few minutes later, the apricot butter was finished and jarred. The flavor was a perfect expression of the fruit — bright and not too sweet — and it occurred to me that preserve-making was like many cooking processes: easy to do moderately well but difficult to master. The same might be said for baking. After quite a few failed attempts at what was supposed to be an easy upside-down cake, I turned to the financier recipe that we use at the restaurant, which made a light, moist cake underneath a layer of gooey, caramelized apricots. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can replace up to a third of the butter in the recipe with rendered foie-gras fat. It’s a little strange, a little exciting and a lot delicious, which suits apricots just fine.