Before the holidays every year, I make big batches of Prunes in Armagnac, Cherries in Red Wine Syrup and Apricot in Cardamom Syrup to give as gifts, packed into pretty jars, with handwritten tags listing their possibilities. I also rely on them for my own entertaining. They last indefinitely in the refrigerator, to be drawn upon to make an instant dessert spooned over vanilla ice cream or numerous other improvisations.
They are all made by the same basic approach.Simmering dried fruit in a light syrup magically makes them soft and plump and imbues them with a vivid, fresh fruit flavor and perfume.
This method works well with about any dried fruit that has a nice balance of acidity and sweetness, such as cherries, blueberries, apricots, prunes, and raisins, adjusting the quantities of sweetener accordingly. Use red or white wine instead of water in the syrup to amplify the fruits’ wineyness and add some acidity, particularly lovely in league with fragrant honey, which gives the effect of cooking them in a dessert wine. And you can improvise endlessly, infusing the syrup with spices and herbs or spiking it with alcohol like dark rum, Armagnac or grappa, once the fruit is plumped and cooled.
Here’s the basic formula, followed by some specific recipes that give examples of ways to play around. They are excerpted from my award-winning cookbook The Improvisational Cook which teaches the simple workings of a recipe so that you have the tools and ‘understanding’ to improvise with it. So for example, you could take these recipes a step farther and make things like Roasted Dried Apricots; Warm Prune or Apricot Turnovers; and Impromtu, Freeform Prune in Armagnac Napoleans.
Method: Dried Fruit in Fragrant Syrup (Boozy or Not)
3 cups water or 2 cups white or red wine mixed with 1 cup water
About 3/4 cup sugar or wildflower honey, or to taste
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped out
2 strips orange and lemon zest, or 4 strips Meyer lemon zest
3/4 pound dried fruit, such as apricots (California are best), prunes, peaches, cherries, raisins, nectarines
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or to taste
Optional alcohol such as rum, Armagnac, brandy, grappa etc.
In a small nonreactive saucepan, combine the water (and wine, if using), sugar, vanilla bean and orange and lemon zests.
Bring to a boil over moderately high heat, and cook about 7 minutes until the sweetener has dissolved and the syrup has a rich vanilla flavor.
Add the dried fruit and simmer – do not boil – for exactly five minutes. Stir in lemon juice to taste and additional sweetener if desired. Set aside to cool.
If you wish to add alcohol, this is the time. Start with 1/4 cup or so, adding more to taste. The balance will change as the fruit sits.
Transfer the fruit and syrup to a clean dry jar. They can be used right away, but get better if left several days to “cure” at room temperature. Store in the refrigerator.
Recipe: Prunes in Armagnac
The inspiration for these luscious prunes comes from the South West of France where they are traditionally steeped in Armagnac, the region’s brandy. But really, almost any aged spirit will do, including bourbon, which turns the prunes toward the American South. After they have steeped in the vanilla-scented, whisky-spiked syrup for a week or two, the prunes mellow into an intensely flavored confection that is a cross between a candy and a confit, perfect for finishing off a meal, or as a sleep-inducing midnight snack for the anxious insomniac.
Makes about 3 cups, about 40 prunes
1 1/2 cups water
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped out
3/4 pound (12 ounces) large pitted prunes
3/4 to 1 cup Armagnac, Bas Armagnac, Bourbon or Cognac, or to taste
Make a light vanilla-scented syrup. In a small nonreactive saucepan, combine the water, sugar and vanilla bean.
Simmer the fruit over low heat. Bring to a boil over moderately high heat until the sugar dissolves. Add the prunes and simmer – do not boil – for exactly five minutes. Transfer prunes and syrup to a clean dry jar.
Cool and add spirits. Allow to cool completely, then stir in 1/2 cup of the Armagnac. As the prunes age, the strength of the spirits will decrease; taste them occasionally and add more to taste. Let sit at room temperature several days to “cure”. Store in the refrigerator.
Recipe: Dried Cherries in Red Wine, Dark Rum or Grappa Syrup
In this play on Boozy Prunes, I steeped dried cherries in a syrup made with red instead of water, to punch of the red fruit flavor and add a bit of acidity. Since the wine’s alcohol gets cooked off, it’s is great nonalcoholic alternative, especially splashed on vanilla ice cream to make instant cherry-vanilla. Spiking the cherries-in-syrup further revealed two intoxicating combinations, one made with dark, aged rum, mild and caramelly; another made with grappa, distilled from grape pressings, earthy and primal. Both these combinations become a great deal more than the sum of their parts and are addictive, the perfect gift for those friends who have everything. Makes about 5 cups
In a medium non-reactive saucepan, combine 2 cups fruity, full-bodied red wine, 1 cup water, 6 tablespoons sugar and 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Stir in 1/2 pound dried cherries, turn off the heat and cover 5 minutes. Uncover and set aside to cool. Transfer the cherries and their liquid to a clean, dry jar. If desired, add 1 to 1 1/4 cups grappa or dark rum. Cover and set aside to mellow at least 1 week. Taste the cherries periodically and add more alcohol as necessary.
Recipe: Dried Apricots in Cardamom Syrup
Instead of alcohol, I perfumed dried apricots with a fragrant cardamom-scented syrup, which impart a singularly Middle Eastern savor. Keep a batch on hand in the fridge for making instant desserts. Serve as a simple compote, with drained whole milk yogurt or use as a filling for tarts and turnovers. I prefer to use California rather than Turkish apricots for their intense flavor and good texture. Makes about 1 quart.
Make a light vanilla-scented syrup using 2 cups water, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice and 5 whole cardamom pods. Crush 5 additional cardamom pods and add the black seeds to the pan. Add 3/4 pounds dried apricots and simmer – do not boil – for exactly five minutes. Transfer to a clean dry jar.
To make Dried Apricots in Rum or Kirsch-Scented Syrup, omit the cardamom. When the apricots are cool, add dark (aged) rum or kirschwasser (cherry brandy), to taste.
Apricots in Cardamom or in Rum or Kirsch-Scented Syrup are a revelation roasted and served with crème fraîche: slightly caramelized with the vivid flavor of roasted fresh apricots. Drain the apricots and arrange them in a single layer in a buttered dish, dot with butter, sprinkle with sugar and roast in a 350’ oven (oven temperature is not critical: you can roast them along with other dishes at higher temperatures) until the bottom of the apricots are caramelized and the bottom of the pan looks like it is beginning to burn, about 30 minutes. Cool the pan slightly and place right on the table, for your guests to serve themselves (they will delight in peeling them out of the pan with their fingers).