Nirvana, by the juicy bushelful

It’s going to be a long season for plums, nectarines, peaches and apricots. Take advantage by featuring them in cakes, tarts and preserves.
(Ken Hively / LAT)
Times Test Kitchen Director

It’s late afternoon at the farmers market. Shoppers have had a few hours already to load up on white and yellow peaches and nectarines, apricots and three kinds of plums, but still there’s a crowd around a counter where wedges of fruit are available to taste.

Little kids with chins already sticky with juice push forward for one more sample; meticulous matrons smack their lips over fragrant white nectarines. Buyers wave bills and go back and fill their bags with another half-dozen plums or peaches.

Relax. Take a deep breath. Time is not running out on the stone fruit season.

This year, thanks to weirdly favorable weather conditions, California’s crops of peaches, nectarines and plums have been early (10 days to two weeks in most cases) and abundant. Marty Willbanks of the Olson Family Farm in Kingsburg just south of Fresno says that the stone fruit crop is “outstanding and better than normal” this year and that the fruit is sweeter than usual because of early hot weather.


Add that bounty to the availability of new varieties that ripen in late summer and early fall and we’re barely into one of the best seasons in memory.

Think of it — you have until early October to indulge, one way or another. Peach pie? Why not? Cobblers and crisps? Of course. Preserves, chutneys, sauces? This is the year to bake and can.

There are dozens of varieties of peaches, nectarines and plums. Through June, look for Fancy Lady peaches, Flavor Crest peaches, Blenheim apricots and Santa Rosa plums. In late June, Elegant Lady peaches and Blackamber plums come into the markets. Early July brings Fantasia nectarines and Friar plums, while Elephant Heart plums can be found in late July. The old-fashioned favorite O’Henry peaches are available beginning in August.

When buying peaches and nectarines, look for those with a yellow background color (although that ranges from a pale creamy color to a bright gold, depending on the variety), with no traces of green (a sign that the fruit was picked too early and will not ripen). Many stone fruit farmers are happy to help you choose fruit depending on when you’d like to eat or cook it.

Use ripe fruit to make poached peaches in mint syrup — the skins slip off easily with the help of a small paring knife. It takes just five minutes for the peaches to poach, but a cooling surprise comes in the juxtaposition of mint and sweet fruit.

It’s hard for us not to eat all the Santa Rosa plums we get our hands on, but we’ve exercised the utmost restraint and used them in a modern upside-down cake. Nectarines or peaches work just as well, and with any of these, the fruit yields a juicy glaze that soaks into the cake when it’s inverted after cooking. The cake itself, a simple batter enriched with browned butter and vanilla bean, is a little softer and sweeter than a shortcake.


Our apricot tart takes advantage of the fact that thin-skinned apricots need no peeling, so it’s easy to cut picture-perfect halves. Use perfectly ripe apricots for this recipe, not too soft and not too hard. Apricots and almonds are an irresistible combination, and the ground-almond crust of this tart is sophisticated in flavor and forgiving in preparation. The filling of apricot halves in a rich custard is finished à la a crème brûlée.


Poached peaches in mint syrup

Total time: 15 minutes plus several hours chilling time

Servings: 4

3 cups water

1 1/2cups sugar

4 whole ripe peaches (about 1 1/4 pounds), peeled

18 mint leaves, torn

4 mint sprigs

1. Combine the water and sugar in a deep 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the peaches. Simmer 5 minutes.

2. Remove the peaches from the syrup to a bowl. Stir the torn mint leaves into the syrup and simmer 1 minute. Pour the hot syrup over the peaches. Cool. Refrigerate several hours.

3. To serve, place each peach in a small bowl. Spoon syrup over and garnish with a mint sprig.

Each serving: 351 calories; 1 gram protein; 91 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium.


Apricot tart brûlée

Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes plus

1 hour chilling

Servings: 8

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2cup toasted blanched almonds, ground fine

9 tablespoons sugar, divided

1/2teaspoon salt

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks total) cold butter, divided

1 egg yolk

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla, divided

1 cup plus 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream, divided

7 to 8 apricots, cut in half and pits removed

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. To make the crust, combine the flour, ground almonds, 3 tablespoons sugar and the salt in a bowl. Cut one-half cup cold butter into small pieces and work it into the dough with your fingers or a pastry cutter until the dough is crumbly and evenly combined but not pasty.

2. Combine the egg yolk, one-half teaspoon vanilla and 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour the egg yolk mixture in. Use a fork to quickly stir until the mixture can be formed into a ball.


3. Gather the dough into a ball and knead several times to blend the ingredients. Form into a ball again; wrap it in plastic wrap and chill 30 minutes.

4. Roll the dough out on a well-floured surface to about a three-eighths-inch thickness. Lift the dough into a 9-inch tart pan and gently press it into the bottom and up against the sides to the top edge of the pan; remove any excess dough. If you have any breaks in the crust, pat the broken area back together. Chill for 30 minutes.

5. Line the pan with foil, then fill halfway with pie weights. Bake the tart shell for 15 minutes. Remove it from the oven and lift off the foil and pie weights. Prick the bottom of the tart shell with a fork and return the crust to the oven. Bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the tart shell from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees.

6. Arrange the apricot halves pitted-side-up in the tart shell.

7. Combine the remaining whipping cream, the remaining vanilla, the eggs and one-fourth cup of the sugar. Gently pour this custard over and around the apricots.

8. Dot the tops of the apricots with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.

9. Bake until the custard tests done in the center, about 35 to 40 minutes. Place the tart under the broiler until the top is browned, about 30 seconds or less.


10. Remove the tart from the oven and cool. Serve warm or chilled.

Each serving: 473 calories; 7 grams protein; 36 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 34 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 167 mg. cholesterol; 181 mg. sodium.


Plum upside-down cake

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Servings: 8 to 10

1/4cup ( 1/2 stick) plus 3 tablespoons butter, divided

1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise

1/3cup milk

1/2 cup brown sugar

6 to 8 ripe plums or 6 nectarines or peaches

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg

1 1/4 cups cake flour

1/4teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cut one-fourth cup butter into pieces and add it to a small saucepan or skillet. Heat over medium heat until the butter browns but does not burn. Pour the browned butter into a small bowl and refrigerate until the butter solidifies.

3. With the tip of a knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean halves into the milk and then add the pods. Heat the milk until it’s warm. Remove it from the heat and set aside to steep and cool.

4. Melt the remaining butter in a small, nonstick skillet. Remove it from the heat and add the brown sugar, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Pour the mixture into an 8-by-2-inch buttered cake pan, evenly coating the bottom of the pan.

5. Cut the plums in half, then cut each half into 3 or 4 slices. Arrange the slices in a single layer of concentric circles, beginning at the outside edge of the pan, so they are touching but not overlapping. Cover the bottom of the pan, then arrange a second layer of fruit on top. Set aside while preparing the cake batter.

6. Beat the cooled browned butter until light and fluffy. Beat in the sugar until creamy. Beat in the egg until blended.

7. In another bowl, stir together the cake flour, salt and baking powder. Remove the vanilla bean from the milk.


8. Fold the flour mixture into the butter-sugar mixture alternately with the vanilla-bean milk. Begin and end with the flour mixture.

9. Gently spoon the batter over the top of the sliced plums in the cake pan. Spread the batter over the fruit so all the fruit is covered and the batter is distributed to the sides of the pan.

10. Bake until the cake tests done in the center and is golden brown, about 50 to 55 minutes.

11. Remove the cake from the oven and let it stand for a few minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the cake to loosen the edges. Put a serving plate on top of the cake and invert. Carefully remove the baking pan from the cake. Cool. Serve warm.

Each of 10 servings: 255 calories; 3 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 9 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 44 mg. cholesterol; 134 mg. sodium.