If you are a regular reader of this blog (and if you're not, explanations in writing please - there's a comment button at the bottom of this post), you will know that I have a strange and passionate fetish for apricots. Fresh ones, mainly, though I love to use the dried ones in all sorts of dishes, particularly savoury ones. Few things make me happier, culinarily speaking, than when the first of the season's apricots appear at the market. I feel reassured that for the next few months I will never be lacking in ideas for luscious, apricot-related confections. I read an old Telegraph article today - I think it was about berries - that at the bottom was asking people to send in apricot recipes for potential publication. Unfortunately it was dated 2001; I was devastated when I read the date, because I feel I am just the girl they need. It could have been my much-needed big break in the food-writing world. One glimpse of this apricot French toast, and I guarantee they would have hired me to extol the wonders of this gorgeous fruit. Preferably for a substantial salary. Though I could deal with being paid simply in crates of apricots.
It occurred to me, while lying in bed the other day, that perhaps my obsession with apricots is largely the result of subliminal messaging. I sleep with a large art print of a bowl of apricots directly in front of my bed; it is the first thing I see when I wake up, and the last thing my sleepy eyes focus on before they close for eight hours. I never really thought about the connection before. I love apricots for their beautiful colouring - particularly when you find some with a bright red blush blossoming over their usual orange - and for their versatility in the kitchen. I love them because they can appear fairly unassuming when raw, then, given the heat treatment, soften and transform into fragrant, pleasantly tart morsels of sunshine. I love them because they feature in lots of Moroccan and Middle Eastern recipes, my favourite type of cuisine. But maybe none of that is true. Maybe I just love them because they sit there on my wall staring at me all night, sending their little orange vibes into my sleeping brain, begging me to continue my love affair with them and bring ways of cooking them to the world.
So, not one to let the apricots down, here is a simple but fantastically delicious recipe. It's a brunch dish in my mind, but could also be a dessert if you've had a light main course and use a little less bread. Obviously, French toast is not my invention (for starters, I am not French, nor do I eat toast that often). However, this combination arose as yet another way to bring my favourite fruit to the breakfast table, and it's now one of my favourites. It's essentially the same method as my rhubarb and vanilla French toast, but I made a couple of changes. I used wholemeal bread instead of white, mainly for health-conscious reasons but also because I love the more interesting flavour (more interesting, because manufactured white bread tastes mainly of cotton wool with a slight notes of albino and undertones of cloud). I used almond extract instead of vanilla (I can't get enough of this stuff at the moment), and I served it with apricots instead of rhubarb.
Not just any apricots, though. These were cooked in a way I've never tried before, and were definitely the best I've ever made. After my trout-in-a-parcel antics the other day, I decided to try baking the apricots in a foil parcel. I drizzled a little honey over the halved fruit, added a splash of orange flower water, sealed the parcel and put it in the oven. Oh, my goodness. They were amazing. Their colour intensified to this incredible marigold, and they softened into the most flavour-packed apricots I've ever had. My boyfriend, who sampled this, remarked that they tasted like apricot jam. You get all of that concentrated flavour and tartness, but without having to add any sugar or do very much at all. They also keep their shape better than in a compote, so look beautiful too. Unfortunately a lot of the sugary juices bubbled out of the parcel and solidified on the oven floor, but if you plan in advance and place the foil parcel on a tray, you can then drizzle the juices over the French toast when you serve it.
It's hard to convey how good this is. I sprinkled demerara sugar on the bread just before frying it, resulting in this amazing caramelised crust, while the inside of the bread stays gooey from the egg. The almond extract isn't too overpowering, but works so well with the sweet, tart fruit, soft enough to squish onto each mouthful of bread as you eat it. Even better, the bread soaks up all the fragrant juices from the apricots. I'm glad I used wholemeal; it has much more depth of flavour and also a bit more texture, somehow, than white, so is better for standing up to the apricots and almond. I genuinely can't think of a better brunch.
Lord knows why I'm writing this on an empty stomach. I'm such a masochist.
Apricot and almond French toast (serves 2):
- 6 large apricots (you could also use peaches), halved
- 2 tbsp honey
- 1 tsp orange flower water
- 4 thick slices wholemeal bread, cut from an unsliced loaf and left out overnight to harden
- 2 eggs
- 200ml whole milk
- 1/2 tsp almond extract
- Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
- A knob of butter
- Icing sugar, for dusting
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Place the apricots on a large sheet of foil, and bring the sides up to form a parcel. Drizzle over the honey and flower water, then seal the parcel and place on a baking tray. Cook in the oven for about half an hour, or until the apricots are soft and fragrant. Check them halfway through - you don't want them to collapse into mush - just remember to re-seal the parcel.
When the apricots are nearly done, whisk the eggs, milk and almond extract together in a baking dish. Lay the slices of bread in the mixture for 5-10 minutes, then flip over. You want them to have absorbed most of the milk. Make sure there are no dry patches by pressing it down into the milk.
Heat the butter in a frying pan until foaming. Sprinkle the bread slices with the demerara sugar then place, sugar-side down, in the butter - you may need to do this in batches. It should sizzle. While that side is cooking, sprinkle sugar on the other side. Cook for about 4 minutes before flipping over and cooking the other side. You should have a crunchy, caramelised crust and a soft interior (the toast, I mean - not you yourself).
Remove the apricots from the oven and turn it down to 90C or so. Keep the cooked toast in the oven to keep it warm while you make the second batch. I find this helps to remove any excess moisture as well, so you could always put both batches in there to cook through when you're done.
Sprinkle the French toast with icing sugar and serve with the cooked apricots and a drizzle of their juice. A scattering of toasted almonds would be good too.