Edible Traditions: Apricots
By Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely / Illustration by Julia Rothman
“Shining in a sweet brightness of golden velvet” is how John Ruskin described the apricot. His words capture the sensual qualities of this luscious fruit. Within the plush skin covered with downy fuzz—the botanical word is pubescent—the flesh is rich, sweet, and tangy.
No wonder Titania instructed her fairies thus, in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, when she wished them to indulge Bottom during her elixir-induced infatuation with the ass:
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries, With purple grapes, green figs and mulberries.
With the word apricock, Shakespeare was using the spelling common in sixteenth-century England.
And Andrew Marvell in his poem “The Garden” wrote:
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach.
Although he didn’t name the apricot, the nectarine and peach are first cousins, like the plum, cherry, and almond. All are drupes in the apple family, which have a similar seed enclosed within a wooden stone, flesh and skin.
No question, across the globe and through millennia, these fruits are all desirable in their appeal to the senses. The apricot, like the others, was considered an aphrodisiac in its native China and along its later path westward through Asia and the Mediterranean. The apricot has been cultivated in northern China for more than 4,000 years, but its origins are so far back in time that much is unknown. Wild apricot trees have been found in Turkestan, as it traveled on the Silk Road, brought by Arab traders, like so many other fruits and spices as well as ideas.
The ancient Greeks thought the apricot came from Armenia, because it flourished there in so many different varieties both bitter and sweet, and so its botanical name became Prunus armeniaca, “Armenian plum,” just as they thought the peach came from Persia (Prunus persica, which gives us our English word peach). The Romans were more interested in the fact that the apricot flowered early and bore fruit before the peach, so they called it praecox for its “precocious” ways. From there come many European Latinate forms such albicocca in Italian, albaricoque in Spanish, for instance, and apricock in earlier English.
The tree became popular in Europe in the 15th century and was brought to England in 1542, by John Wolf (originally Jean Le Loup), gardener to King Henry VIII. Colonists took it to North America in the 18th century, and Spanish missionaries to the West Coast, where it has thrived ever since and where most American production is today. The Middle East remains a major producer of apricots, especially Turkey, where they are naturally dried in the sun. In the modern world, Australia is a major player in the apricot industry. Varieties and processes vary from one region to another.
The apricot tree needs a temperate and stable climate, with cold winters, warm springs, and early summers, so that the blossoms can avoid frost and bear fruit. In the United States today, the commercial crop season from California and the Pacific Northwest is May through August, peaking in late May and June. The local crop in Massachusetts comes in July. Fresh apricots are notoriously hard to find tree-ripened and full-flavored, as they may be picked green and shipped long distances too early. They can remain pale yellow and rock hard, or, once ripe, quickly turn to mush.
During a Massachusetts summer, apricots from local growers like the Nicewicz Family Farm in Bolton are a better bet. This third generation farm, established in 1929, grows four varieties with names like Moon Gold and Moor Park on twenty trees. They blossom during April. Alan Nicewicz says that “in New England the bloom is so early that there is a good chance of the crop getting killed by frost.” In addition to their farm stand, their apricots are sold during July at ten different farmers markets in the greater Boston area and Worcester. They also offer peaches, plums, pears, and apples in season, as well as vegetables and flowers. Catch them when you can! They are worth the quest.
At American markets look for fresh apricots that range in color from yellow-orange blush to deep amber, depending on variety and ripeness. The texture should be plump and slightly yielding to the touch, but still firm; store them in the refrigerator. Not-quite-mature apricots will ripen a little at room temperature (faster in a bag). Use them soon.
Fresh ripe apricots are very nutritious, high in Vitamin A and potassium and iron, as well as other vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and at the same time low in calories. Fortunately apricots dry exceptionally well, and they keep nearly all of these benefits. Sulfur dioxide is often added to speed up the drying process and to preserve them, and sometimes they are dyed too orange. The sulfur dioxide can impart a nasty taste, so try to find them without: look for Turkish.
Dried apricots are made into flat strips of “leather” made of skinless paste, available at Middle Eastern markets. I have found that children like this as a novelty for box lunches and after-school snacks. For that matter, dried apricots go well diced into granola, muesli, trail mixes, and gorp, replacing the ubiquitous raisin. And if you stir in some tales like Aladdin’s Lamp from Arabian Nights, that may further arouse their curiosity.
For all ages, apricots have been used in diverse ways, sweet and savory, sour and spicy, simple and complex, across the broad swath of the fruit’s path westward, evoking its exotic history, from China to the Hunza Valley of Central Asia and across the Caucasus to Persia. Some of the dishes suggested here describe its many possibilities, while a few are given detailed recipes.
In China, apricots are sometimes preserved by salting and smoking, methods which sound intriguing but I have not yet tried. There is a Chinese black tea which is subtly flavored with bits of dried apricot, not easy to come by but very refreshing. In Japan, where ornamental apricot trees grow in landscape gardens, a small sour variety of the fruit is pickled and eaten for breakfast as a restorative. In India, dried apricots may be folded into yogurt raitas with vegetables and spices as a savory sweet-and-sour accompaniment to fiery dishes. A dessert called Quabani ka meetha is made with a sweet cultivar unavailable here, in which it is steeped with nothing but water and a little lemon juice until soft and then puréed. The kernels from inside the apricot stone are added at the end as garnish.
Throughout the whole central Asian region of India and Pakistan moving towards Persia and around the Mediterranean, dried apricots are often added to rice pilaf and polo, in their diverse spellings and combinations, both savory and sweet. Mishmish is the Arabic word for apricot, which lends its name to the Moroccan mishmishiya, a kind of tajin, or tagine, for festive occasions. These braises, named for the conical container in which they are cooked, include lamb or perhaps chicken or duck with dried apricots, onions, and other vegetables, in a deeply complex and spicy dish.
In some bitter varieties the apricot kernel contains toxic prussic acid unless roasted or processed correctly. The amaretto, a lovely macaroon meringue cookie from southern Italy, is made with apricot kernels rather than bitter almonds, their relative. A popular Italian dessert, Pesche piemontese—peach halves baked with crushed macaroons and almond paste filling—could just as well be made with apricots. Almonds are often baked into pastries and myriad other dishes with apricots, a natural combination. I like to use pistachios, un-dyed and unsalted, for their striking color contrast of green nut with orange fruit.
Just as the fresh apricot’s tangy flavor takes well to spices brought with it from the East—ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin, to name a few—it pairs sublimely with the assertive flavor of chocolate. Sachertorte, the rich classic dessert from Vienna, has layers of chocolate cake spread with apricot jam and bittersweet chocolate icing over all. Apricot jam is a staple for pastry chefs who often use it strained and melted as a glaze. Its round flavor and golden hue gives a shimmery glow to tarts and gateaux.
For an American summer, fresh apricots are excellent on the grill. Cut ripe but firm apricots nearly in half, remove the pits, then thread the fruit on a pair of skewers (to keep them from swiveling). Brush them with a cumin- and chili-scented marinade and grill them, turning and basting a few times, to accompany grilled country-style pork chops or chicken thighs. Or at the end of your barbecue, lay apricot halves flesh-side-down to the side of the grill in the lingering heat; turn them over and serve plated with scoops of ginger ice cream that melts and mingles with the caramelized juices.
When fresh apricots are in season, few things are better than a compote of the fruit lightly poached in simple syrup, with a few fresh berries tossed on top before serving. For that matter, on a warm summer day, a lusciously ripe apricot eaten out of hand is incomparable. We can find the poetry all by ourselves.
The orchards below grow apricots which you can find at their farm stands or at many farmers markets in the greater Boston area:
Nicewicz (“nishway”) Family Farm 116 Sawyer Road, Bolton | 978.779.6423 | nicewiczfarm.com
The Big Apple Farm 207 Arnold Street, Wrentham | 508.384.3055 | thebigapplefarm.com
Keown Orchards 10 McClellan Road, Sutton | 508.865.6706 | keownorchards.com
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), has been in print since 1986. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Beth passed away in 2017.
Fresh Apricot Compote with Summer Berries
This recipe, with apricots and a mix of fresh-picked berries, speaks eloquently of summer’s evanescence. Instead of orange-flavored liqueur, you can add a teaspoon of orange flower water for a hint of exoticism.
Makes about 6 servings.
½ cup sugar
One 2-inch strip orange zest
2 pounds fresh ripe apricots
2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur or fresh orange juice
1 to 2 cups fresh berries such as raspberries, blueberries, and red currants
Put the sugar in a saucepan with 1 cup water and the orange zest. Bring to a boil and let cook gently without stirring until the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add the apricots and orange liqueur or juice, cover, and poach over low heat just until the apricots are tender, about 5 minutes, turning once midway. Do not overcook. If they are done, carefully take them out with a slotted spoon. If firm, let them cool in the syrup. (Err on the side of undercooking.)
When cool enough to handle, cut each apricot in half along the natural line and remove the pit. Discard the zest. Return the apricots to the syrup, and just before serving stir in the berries.
This beautiful tart, based on a recipe in Patricia Wells at Home in Provence, combines the luscious flavors of southern France with convenience. The method for the crust, using little equipment, reduces the usual steps and stops, so it’s perfect for a vacation dessert when you’re traveling light and want to be outside. You can omit the custard altogether, glazing the fruit with melted and strained apricot jam.
Makes 8 servings.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
1¼ cups flour
2 tablespoons sliced or ground toasted almonds (unsalted)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ cup heavy cream or more
2 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon almond extract (optional)
About 2 pounds apricots
Preheat the oven to 375° F.
Smear 1 scant tablespoon butter on the bottom and sides of a 9-inch tart pan. Put all the remaining butter in a medium-sized pot and gently melt; let it cool a bit. Stir in the sugar, then the salt and flour, just enough to make a smooth dough. Transfer the dough into the tart pan; with your fingers press it onto the sides and over the bottom to form a thin crust. Bake the crust shell, set on a sheet, for 12-15 minutes, until set and slightly puffy (press down to deflate any puff). Take it out and scatter the nuts over the bottom.
While the crust is baking, lightly beat the egg in a bowl with the honey; stir in the cream and almond extract. Halve or quarter the apricots. Starting on the outside edge of the tart, place them cut side up, slightly angled and overlapping and a bit crowded as they will shrink in cooking. Make two or three concentric circles around the center; you may not need all these apricots. Stir the custard again and pour it evenly over the fruit. Place the tart on the middle shelf in the oven and bake for about 50 minutes, until it turns a rich gold and the custard starts to color. Let it cool slightly before serving, cut in wedges.
Leg of Lamb with Apricot and Pistachio Filling
This boned lamb has subtle spicy Middle Eastern flavorings. When you slice it across to serve, the apricots, and pistachios show through like colorful inlay. Serve this for a special occasion with a salad of tomatoes and greens.
Makes 6 or more servings.
3 pound leg of lamb, boned
¼ cup bulgur
½ cup boiling water
5 or 6 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 mushrooms, diced
½ teaspoon ground coriander seed
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 ounces dried apricots cubed (about 1/3 cup)
2 ounces unsalted pistachios (about 1/3 cup)
¼ teaspoon salt or to taste + more for roasting
½ teaspoon pepper or to taste + more for roasting
Open the leg of lamb on a large cutting board. Remove any lumps of fat, if needed, and cut pockets in the thick parts of the meat so it is somewhat even; better not to butterfly it.
Meanwhile, put the bulgur in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over to plump it. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a pan and sauté the mushrooms, stirring. As they begin to color, stir in the onion, then garlic, and cook until softened, just a few minutes in all. Drain any unabsorbed water from the bulgur and add it to the onion mixture with the coriander, allspice, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Mix them well. Stir in the apricots and pistachios, too.
Spread this mixture evenly over the open lamb. Roll the meat back up, tucking in the filling and edges of meat to enclose it all as best you can (don’t worry if some spills out). With kitchen string, tie the lamb up around the length and also the ends to wrap the whole package. Poke any bits of filling back inside. Set the stuffed and tied lamb seam side down on a rack in a roasting pan. Cover and chill until you are ready for roasting unless it is right away; overnight is fine.
Preheat the oven to 450° F and put the oven rack in the center. Rub 2 tablespoons olive oil all over the surface of the lamb and sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Add a cup of water to the bottom of the roasting pan. Set the lamb in the preheated oven, immediately turn the heat down to 350°, and roast until it reaches the temperature of 125° F (this is for rare; 130° to 135° F for medium-rare to medium). Start checking at one hour. The lamb will be brown and crisp on the outside, the interior pink. Let the meat sit for 10 to 15 minutes in a warm place, covered.
To serve, remove the strings and carve the meat across in thin slices. You can dissolve the pan juices if you like with water or stock to make a quick sauce.
Apricot Upside-Down Cake
Amber apricots make a cobblestone surface to this cake while their syrupy juices seep into the crumb. With vanilla or ginger ice cream, this is a luscious summer dessert for any celebration.
Makes 8 or more servings.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur or orange juice
About 2 pounds apricots
¾ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
3/8 cup whole milk
4 large egg whites
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Over low heat, melt the butter in a 9-inch skillet with non-plastic handle (cast iron is perfect). Swirl the butter up the sides of the pan nearly to the lip. Remove one tablespoon of the butter and put it in a small bowl; set aside. Add to the pan 1/2 cup sugar and the liqueur or orange juice. Dissolve the sugar in the liquid, letting some of the moisture evaporate. Turn off the heat.
Cut the apricots in half around the natural segmentation; twist to separate the halves and remove the pits. Lay the apricot halves skin-side down in the pan side-by-side, close together.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. To the reserved tablespoon of melted butter mix in the 3 egg yolks, vanilla, and orange zest, and then slowly stir in the milk, smoothing any lumps.
Put the egg whites in a medium-sized bowl with a pinch of salt. Whip the whites until they begin to form soft peaks. Slowly, gradually, add the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar until they form a glossy meringue. Fold one large spoonful into the flour mixture, then quickly fold that back into the rest of the meringue until no white streaks remain in the batter. Quickly, deftly, spread the batter over the apricots and smooth the top. Put the pan in the preheated oven and bake until the cake has risen and puffed, is golden in color, and the center tests done, about 35 to 40 minutes.
With an oven mitt, remove the pan from the oven and let it sit on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes. Leave the mitt on the handle to protect your hand from the scorching heat—it’s very easy to forget and burn your hand. Run a knife around the inside edge to loosen the cake as it settles.
When the cake has cooled somewhat, put a large serving plate on top of the pan, grasp firmly, and invert the cake onto the plate; you may well need an extra pair of hands for this maneuver. Make sure the cake is centered on the plate, then lift the pan off. Neaten the apricots, if necessary, and spoon any juices left in the pan onto the cake. Serve warm or at room temperature cut into wedges. Ice cream or whipped cream makes a delicious accompaniment.
Oven-Roasted Apricots with Green Tea Elixir
Bill Yosses, Executive Pastry Chef of the White House from 2007 to 2014, is known locally for his seminar on food chemistry at Harvard. This extraordinary recipe, utterly original, comes from his dessert book, The Perfect Finish, where he uses delicate peaches instead of apricots. The contrast of colors with light, refreshing textures makes this an ideal dessert for a hot summer night. Be sure to use a blender, not a food processor, and high-quality matcha green tea powder from Japan.
Makes 6 servings.
Unsalted butter for the pan 6 apricots, ripe but firm
¼ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon matcha tea (good-quality, no substitute)
1 cup ice cubes
Put the rack on the middle shelf of the oven and preheat to 350° F. Lightly smear a baking sheet with butter.
Cut the apricots in half around the natural segmentation; twist to separate and remove the pits. Lay the halves cut side up on the baking sheet and bake about 12 minutes, until tender. Cool, slip off the skins and cut the flesh into cubes (if the skins are stubborn, leave them on).
Put the milk, sugar, and matcha tea powder in a blender and whiz to combine them. Add the ice and continue blending until smooth. Place the apricot cubes in a beautiful glass bowl or individual goblets. Pour the elixir over and serve immediately.