When my parents came to visit me this past weekend for my birthday, my mom handed me a small paper bag as she walked through the door. Peeking inside, the dim light revealed jewels of glowing, blushing orange at the bottom of the bag: a few, small delicate gems, slightly fuzzy, and nestled amongst large, verdant tree leaves. Apricots! from my parents' tree that stands right outside the kitchen window of my childhood home. Birthday apricots!
You see, these apricots are particularly special because our tree rarely produces much fruit. Most years, what little fruit there is is quickly claimed by squirrels and birds before we humans can get to it. But when we do hit upon a year in which the tree decides to produce more fruit, the apricots are sweeter, juicier, and more delicious than any I've ever tasted in a store. (I have no idea what variety these are....)
While I was growing up, my grandmother would split her time between living in Taiwan and living with us in California, helping take care of her grandchildren on both sides of the Pacific. For some reason, our apricot tree would only produce bountiful amounts of fruit during the years my grandmother was with us--we used to theorize that our tree didn't like us but that it really loved my grandma because she would tend to it much more carefully and diligently than we would. Then, when it bore fruit, my grandmother ingeniously fashioned her own fruit picker stick, out of old fabric and chicken wire, to reach the topmost limbs of the tree. I have memories of looking out our kitchen window and seeing her standing on the patio, reaching for those impossible apricots way out on the edges.
Nowadays, my grandmother can't travel anymore and lives permanently in Taiwan. Every year around June, I always think about our apricot tree, and wonder if it misses my grandma's visits as much as I do. Maybe the tree does (if trees can), because it fruits even less frequently now than it used to, or maybe I'm just too good at projecting emotions onto inanimate objects. (A skill I've acquired no doubt by being an only child who had to grow up with imaginary friends.... I've been told I have an uncanny ability to vocalize for teddy bears.) So whenever the apricot tree does decide to bear fruit, it's always seem to me like a sigh of relief--like, yes, this world is still a happy enough place that magical apricots can appear in bountiful amounts!
[click on photo for larger image]
Even though I'm supposed to be on a self-imposed Dissertation Vacation, in which nothing happens during vacation except the writing of the thesis (also, I've been listening to too much Sarah Vowell), I couldn't resist heading into the kitchen to make something of these rare apricots: an apricot brûlée tart. Since they were already so perfect on their own, I wanted to make something that highlighted the au natural taste of the apricots without doing too much to them, so instead of baking them down in the oven, I put them fresh on top of a cream tart, and lightly brûlée-ed the tops, adding a crunchy, dark caramelization to the apricots. The result is this fascinating blend of hot and cold, with the crispy caramelized sugar lining a juicy burst of fresh apricot underneath. As a backdrop, the pastry crust is flaked with thyme, to add an earthy and almost savory counterpart to the sweetness of the apricots. And the tart is filled with vanilla bean pastry cream--vanilla bean instead of extract because of its clean, almost nutty taste that I really adore with apricots. I think my grandmother and our apricot tree would approve!
On another note, how is it July already?!
Read on for recipe....
Apricot brûlée tart
makes one 9-inch tart (or two 6-inch tarts)
2 Tbspn fresh thyme leaves
260 g all-purpose flour
50 g sugar
1/8 tspn salt
7 Tbpsn butter
1 egg yolk
3-4 Tbspn water
1 egg white
for pastry cream
1 vanilla bean
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
40 g all-purpose flour
75 g sugar
6 egg yolks
1 Tbspn unsalted butter
1. for pastry. Combine the thyme leaves, flour, sugar, salt, and butter in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the butter is the size of small peas. Add the egg yolk and pulse to combine. Add the water, one tablespoon at a time, pulsing between each addition. Pulse just until the dough holds together when pressed between two fingers. Do not overmix.
2. Remove the dough from the food processor, form into a small, flat disc, cover tightly with plastic wrap or parchment paper, and refrigerate for at least one hour. The dough should be firm to the touch.
3. Preheat the oven to 425° F. On a lightly floured surface, roll the cold dough out to ⅛-inch thickness. Transfer to the tart pan, press in the bottom and sides, and prick the bottom a few times with a fork. Return the pastry to the refrigerator if it has softened.
4. Line the pastry shell with a piece of parchment paper, fill with pie weights or beans, and bake for 13 to 15 minutes. Remove the weights and the parchment paper, brush the insides of the pastry with a small amount of egg white, and return to the oven for 3 to 5 minutes more, until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.
5. for pastry cream. Combine the milk and heavy cream in a small saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the milk. Add the pod. Heat the milk and cream brûlée tart over medium heat until just barely simmering, before it boils. Remove from heat.
6. In a medium saucepan, whisk to combine the flour and sugar. Prep the egg yolks in another heatproof bowl and whisk briefly. Over medium-low heat, add the milk and cream to the flour mixture. Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan until the mixture has boiled for about two minutes. Slowly temper the egg yolks by gradually pouring a small amount of the hot milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Once hot, add the yolks to the saucepan. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture has reached 170° F and is very thick. Do not let it boil. Remove from heat and press through a fine mesh strainer. Cover and let cool completely in the refrigerator.
7. Once cool, stir briefly and then spread into the tart shell.
8. for apricots. Cut the apricots in half and arrange on the custard. Just before serving, sprinkle a thin layer of turbinado sugar on the apricots and caramelize with a blowtorch or under the broiler. Top with a few fresh thyme leaves. Serve immediately.
Pastry cream recipe adapted from Chez Panisse Desserts.
Below, L to R: before and after brulee
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