The sight of the season's first apricots never fails to fill me with joy. It's probably more of a novelty thing than anything else, because apricots are one of the few fruits you don't find all year round. If I remember correctly they seem to have two seasons here in the UK; early winter, and summer - it depends on where in the world they're being shipped from. In the winter it's usually Africa, but now the Spanish and French varieties are starting to appear, and I couldn't be more excited about their culinary potential. I say culinary, rather than gastronomic, because I rarely use or consume apricots raw. There always has to be a modicum of cookery involved, because otherwise I find they are often woolly and bland inside - highly disappointing given the promise heralded by their gorgeous blushing skins. Once heat has been applied, however, the humble apricot transforms into something ethereal; sweet, tart, tender, and beautiful to behold.
I either roast or poach apricots. When they're in the shops, I will eat them for breakfast for weeks on end, dolloped generously atop a huge bowl of steaming porridge into which I've mixed chopped dates, sultanas, and ground cinnamon. It's probably my all-time favourite breakfast; the chewy, caramelly dates go so well with the tartness of the fruit. When the apricots aren't very ripe, as the early ones in the season often aren't, my preference is for poaching them. No matter how underripe your fruit, if you treat it in this way it is bound to be glorious. I just put the halved and stoned apricots in a pan with a splash of orange flower water, a few crushed cardamom pods, a few cloves, a cinnamon stick and a star anise, pour in enough water to half cover the fruit, put the lid on the pan and let it simmer away on a low heat for 20-30 minutes. The resulting elixir is amazing; some of the apricots stay whole and tender, while others dissolve into a gorgeous orange puree. The orange flower water lifts the flavour to new dimensions altogether; I think it was in a Nigel Slater book where I first read about using this ingredient with apricots, and it's a marriage made in heaven.
I have to say, though, despite having just gone on and on about how exciting the new season apricots are, they were actually more of an afterthought in this dessert. It originally started with a vehement desire to make Chai tea ice cream. Impressed with the success of my Earl Grey ice cream, and various herbal/floral ice creams I've made recently (bay leaf was particularly good) I thought the spices of Chai tea would be incredible in frozen form. A dessert combining my favourite things: tea, spices, and ice cream? Definitely.
I love Chai tea. I prefer to drink it black, rather than in the form of Chai tea lattes, simply because I find them a bit too cloying after a few mouthfuls. I have fond memories of Starbucks dates with a good friend of mine, in which he'd always order a Chai latte and I'd order a cappuccino (and then douse it in all the available sprinkles - the presence of shakeable nutmeg never failed to send me into a frenzy of delight), and then sit there inhaling the sweet aroma of the Chai spices and wishing I'd ordered one too. I do have a bit of an obsession with fragrant spices, which I suppose is what draws me to Middle Eastern cuisine so much, and the mixture of cardamom, cloves, fennel seeds, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and tea promised an amazing ice cream.
I used some Chai tea from a little tea caddy sitting on my windowsill, but supplemented it with a few extra spices for maximum flavour: a cinnamon stick, a piece of fresh ginger, some crushed cardamom pods, and some cloves. The mixture sat happily atop the milk and cream base for an hour or so to infuse. When I first made tea ice cream, I didn't really consider the fact that, of course, black tea stains liquid, and you end up with a pale beige colour. I rather like this effect; it makes the ice cream look much more interesting and also the colour has a hint of caramel about it. I whisked egg yolks with sugar, added them to the milk and cream base, stirred it over heat to form a custard, then put it in the fridge.
Incidentally, I'm not sure if this is normal, but my ice cream bases always separate when I chill them in the fridge overnight. I end up with a thick, set layer of mousse on top of a layer of cream. It doesn't seem to be detrimental in any way, and I just mix it up again with a spatula before putting it in the ice cream machine...though if any keen ice cream makers are reading this, I'd be interested to know if that happens to everyone. Maybe it's just my ineptitude at making custard (or, more likely, my impatience when making custard, so I stop before it's properly thickened).
For the tarts, I used filo. I was going to make a proper sweet pastry, but I decided the papery, melt-in-the-mouth texture of filo would be better with the sharp apricots and the Chai spices. I made the cases by just layering a few filo sheets with butter and pressing them into some mini tart tins. The effect is very rustic; definitely not the neat, French-patisserie style tart case you'd get with proper pastry, but I quite like the feather-lightness of these tart shells.
To fill them, apricots poached as I described above. They were an incredible vivid orange colour once they'd softened; I think it must have been a particular batch I got from the market, because a recent purchase didn't nearly compare in colour. These were bordering on neon orange. I spooned the jammy, tender compote into the baked tart cases, dusted with a little icing sugar, and garnished with a scoop of Chai tea ice cream. I now think that some toasted almonds or pistachios would have made the tarts look even better, but in the frenzy of plating up nine desserts my presentation skills tend to slip a little.
The flavour combination in this dessert is fantastic. The sweet spices from the ice cream perfectly complement the tart fruit (I never add any sugar when poaching apricots; I don't feel they need it and I like my fruit with a sour edge). The compote and ice cream would actually be perfect without the filo, but it adds a lovely crunch and it also looks pretty. The ice cream is difficult to describe; when I served it, everyone asked me what it was, and I told them to guess. "Toffee" and "praline" were the first guesses, though that was before anyone tried it and so down to the lovely tea colouring. After that, we had "lapsang souchong", "coffee", "cinnamon", "ginger", "green tea" and a few more ridiculous speculations until I finally told them what it was. I suppose it's because there are so many different spices involved, it's hard to pinpoint just one. And that is the beauty of this ice cream; every mouthful, I think, tastes slightly different. It would be wonderful just on its own on a hot summer day, or with most fruit-based desserts (I am very keen to try it with mangoes, given the Indian link).
Poached apricot tartlets with Chai tea ice cream (serves 8; easily adapted for smaller numbers):
- 300ml whipping cream
- 300ml whole milk
- 2 tbsp Chai tea
- 4 cardamom pods, crushed
- 3 cloves
- A slice of fresh ginger
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 5 egg yolks
- 130g caster sugar
- A generous pinch of salt
(You could re-use the spices for the apricot compote below if you don't have enough - just wash and dry them in between uses).
- 6 sheets filo pastry
- Melted butter, for brushing
- 500g fresh apricots, halved and stoned
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 cardamom pods, crushed
- 2 tsp orange flower water
- 2 cloves
- 1 star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
First, make the ice cream. Place the milk and cream in a pan, add the tea and spices, bring to the boil and turn off the heat. Leave to infuse for at least an hour - keep tasting, and leave until it's strong enough for you. Strain into a jug and either discard the spices or reserve for the compote.
Whisk the egg yolks with the caster sugar until doubled in volume, thick and creamy. Gradually add the milk and cream, whisking to incorporate, then pour it all into a pan. Gently heat, stirring continuously, until the mixture thickens like custard. This will take 10 minutes or more. Add the salt to taste - it will bring out the flavour of the spices. Put in the fridge and chill overnight, then churn in an ice cream machine and put in the freezer to set.
For the apricot compote, place the halved apricots in a pan and half cover with water. Add the spices and flower water, bring to the boil, then put a lid on and simmer very gently for about 20-30 minutes. You want the fruit to be tender, but some of the apricots to still keep their shape.
For the tart cases, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Take one filo sheet, brush with melted butter, and place another on top, then do the same with a third layer. Cut into four squares (or rectangles, depending on the dimension of your filo sheets), and press each into a small buttered tart tin or ramekin to make a rough cup shape. Brush with melted butter, then repeat with the other three filo sheets to make eight cases.
Bake for about 5 minutes, until golden brown. Remove to a cooling rack. When cool, spoon in the apricot compote. Dust with icing sugar and serve with the Chai ice cream.