An abundance of time and apricotsPosted on June 22, 2017
It’s late June, and summer has long since arrived and settled in for the long haul here in Rome. When I initially sat down to write this post, just over a week ago, I started to write that we were at the point in the season where everything still felt exceedingly new and pleasant: The sun on my back as I walked down the street, Saturdays at the beach, seeing the stonefruit and the first few watermelons showing up on the market tables.
But, a week later, I’m ready to revise that statement slightly. While we haven’t exactly gotten to the oppressively hot, truly brain-melting phase of the season yet – that’ll hold off until July, if we’re lucky – things are starting to feel decidedly more steamy around the city. The temperature is creeping upwards, and, more noticeably, the humidity is starting to feel heavy enough that the air has a certain kind of noticeable, physical presence to it, which is perhaps the most disturbing part about summers in Rome. When it gets hot here, it can feel as though you’re drowning.
For now though – for as long as the temperature stays hovering around the low thirties – I can still say that I’m enjoying summer and the little ways that it manages to change up my daily routine. I’ve been starting my mornings early, setting my alarm for an ambitious 5:30am and resisting the urge to jab the snooze button before rolling out of bed, pulling on my running clothes while trying to massage the pillow creases out of my cheeks and then stumbling out the door. It’s a bit of a brutal way to begin the day, to be honest. I’d really prefer to wake up later and lounge around in bed with a cappuccino rather than racing a sweaty, sleepy loop around the neighbourhood, but the advantage of the early start (other than avoiding the worst of the heat each day) is that I gain so much time. Mornings feel endless now, a pleasant side effect that almost makes up for all that lost sleep.
These days, given that I’m generally showered, dressed and ready to start the productive part of my day by around 7:30am, I’ve been spending a lot of time lingering in the kind of coffee bar that puts a few little tables outside and generally appears to not care when I plunk myself down, open up my computer and then stay put for at least an hour, long after I take the last sip of my cappuccino. My apartment doesn’t have a terrace, so I make do by co-opting a select group of four or five bars (chosen based on availability of tables, wifi, and their general willingness to ignore the antisocial foreign girl using one of the tables as a makeshift office) and rotating between them throughout the week.
There’s only so much time I can spend there before I start to feel like I’ve overstayed my welcome, so eventually I pack up my computer and pass through the market in Campo de’ Fiori, where I’ll pick up the ingredients for the day’s meals on my way back home. I can never resist buying a couple of bags of fruit, too – good, sweet, ripe stonefruit is one of the undeniable pleasures of summer – some of which gets eaten out of hand while leaning out the window, the rest of it making its way into some kind of fruit-based dessert. This is another advantage to an early start in the morning: I can have a cake prepared, baked, and out on the counter cooling before the sun starts to angle its rays towards the kitchen window, raising the temperature to oven-unfriendly levels.
This season, I’ve been bringing apricots home from the market every couple of days; kilos of them at a time, all ripe enough that they need to be used within a day or two before they start to turn brown and slump. Apricots are, in a way, a new discovery for me. I spent years ignoring them completely, going directly to the peaches or the nectarines instead. But a few weeks ago, the guy that runs my go-to market stall plucked a sun-warmed apricot off the top of a mound of fruit, ripped it open, and handed me half. I ate it. It was incredible. It was the beginning of a series of apricot-intensive desserts that’s still going strong today, a way of making up for lost time with this fruit before its season is over.
I’ve been gravitating toward two recipes in particular, both of which are so quick to prepare that they slot effortlessly into my lengthy summer mornings. There’s a cobbler that lets the bright flavour of cooked apricots take centre stage, and then there’s a cake, where slices of apricot are paired with almond and cinnamon. The cake in particular is the kind of recipe I love having on hand – it tastes more complicated than the sum of its parts, it’s equally good hot out of the oven or after two days sitting uncovered on the counter, and everyone who’s tasted it (quite a few people by now, considering that I’ve made it for several dinners with friends) seems to love it. If you ask me, everyone needs to have a few recipes like this on hand; recipes that will see you through the early days of summer and into the heart of the season, recipes that celebrate the mountains of ripe stonefruit heaped onto market tables.
This recipe is adapted slightly from this Perfect Peach Cobbler. I do think peaches would be perfect here (and intend to make it with peaches very soon), but there’s something about the tartness and bold flavour of cooked apricots paired with the soft, biscuit-like topping that sounded infinitely appealing. I’ve also added in a sprinkling of cinnamon with the fruit, since it’s such a complementary taste. It’s a subtle addition; you can easily leave it out. This is the kind of dessert that does double-duty as breakfast the next morning – it’s not overwhelmingly sweet, so you don’t feel too guilty telling yourself that it counts as a serving of fruit.
For the fruit filling
- 1kg ripe but firm apricots
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract or seeds from half vanilla pod
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/4 cup (45g) muscovado sugar (or regular brown sugar)
- 1 tbsp. cornstarch
For the pastry topping
- 225g all-purpose flour
- 50g sugar
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 85g butter, very cold, cut into small cubes
- 60ml (1/4 cup) milk
- Extra sugar for sprinkling
- Preheat oven to 210°C (410°F)
- Slice the apricots: If they’re very small, you can simply halve them, otherwise cut them into quarters. Toss them with the vanilla extract, cinnamon, muscovado sugar and cornstarch, then distribute the apricots into a 24cm cast iron skillet or similarly-sized baking dish. Put the apricots in the oven for 10 minutes, while you’re preparing the pastry topping.
- To make the pastry topping, combine the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a bowl, then use your fingers, a fork or a pastry blender to cut in the butter until it resembles corse crumbs (keep the butter in the fridge until just before you need it!). Use a fork to mix in the milk. The dough should look crumbly with differently-sized clumps; you do not want it to be smooth and uniform.
- Take the fruit out of the oven and distribute the pastry over the surface, spreading out clumps without compacting them. You don’t need to cover the fruit completely, and you might want to leave a centimetre or two around the edge of the pan uncovered so that the fruit can bubble and let off steam. Sprinkle a bit of extra sugar over the topping.
- Bake for 15–20 minutes, or until the pastry has risen and turned deep gold. The fruit should be bubbling.
- Serve warm; leftovers can be stored covered and eaten at room temperature or reheated.
Cinnamon Apricot Cake
This is the kind of cake that goes straight into a “favourite recipe” list. It comes together quickly, keeps well (if you’re the sort of person who manages to make a cake last longer than 24 hours), and appeals to adults and children alike. The recipe is adapted from this Simple Summer Peach Cake on Food52, but I took some liberties with the recipe, including using apricot slices instead of chopped up peach bits, and adding in some cinnamon and muscovado sugar to give the cake a warmer, more complex flavour.
- 4 or 5 ripe but firm apricots
- 3/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1.5 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 cup muscovado sugar (or dark brown sugar)
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 85 grams (6 tbsp) softened unsalted butter
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup buttermilk (if you can’t find buttermilk, combining equal portions of plain yogurt and milk works beautifully)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp almond extract
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup almond flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- Turbinado sugar for sprinkling
- Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Butter a 23cm (9-inch) springform cake pan.
- Cut the apricots into quarters and set aside (if you really like cinnamon, you can also give them a little sprinkling of cinnamon)
- Combine the flour and almond flours, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
- In a stand mixer or with a wooden spoon, cream together the butter and the sugar. Add the egg, mix until combined, then add the buttermilk and extracts. Mix until combined. The batter may separate after adding the buttermilk – this is normal and it will come back together when mixed with the dry ingredients.
- Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, then mix until just combined. Pour into the cake pan.
- Arrange the apricots on top of the cake, pressing them into the batter slightly, making a ring around the edge and another, smaller ring at the centre. Sprinkle the turbinado sugar over the top.
- Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven heat to 160°C (325°F). Bake for another 40 – 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.