I spend a lot of time in grocery stores and markets buying food for my job and for my own cooking at home. In the summertime, regardless of what’s on my shopping list, I’m always lured to the peaches, plums, apricots, and nectarines by their intoxicating fragrance. When stone fruit are perfectly ripe, they just beg to be scooped up and devoured—or turned into classic summer desserts—but to tell if the fruit is really ripe, I need to really get involved with the fruit. With visions of shortcakes and cobblers and upside-down cakes in my head, I begin to touch the peaches and sniff the apricots. I do get plenty of funny looks from other shoppers, but they usually wind up asking me to help them choose some ripe fruit. It’s really very easy.
Use your senses. I take the threefold approach to selecting all my fruit. First I smell it. Fragrance is the primary indicator of ripeness. If it doesn’t smell like a peach or a plum, I move on. Next I hold the fruit in my hand and press it gently on its shoulders; the fruit should give slightly. Finally I give the piece a “once-over,” looking for well-colored, smooth-skinned fruit without bruises or blemishes.
Pass over the underripe fruit. Don’t be fooled into thinking that cooking will improve the taste of fruit that isn’t quite ripe. Baked fruit is a concentrated version of its fresh counterpart, so if it isn’t sweet and delicious when fresh, don’t expect much once it’s been baked. The fruit’s natural sweetness and flavors must be developed—stone fruit may soften in texture after they’re picked from the tree, but they never really become sweeter (see Choosing Fruit That’s Truly Ripe). I don’t buy stone fruit that doesn’t have at least a hint of fragrance, and I don’t bake with anything I wouldn’t eat fresh. I try to choose the ripest fruit I can at the market and use it the same day.
But if slightly underripe fruit is your only option, you can let the fruit rest on your countertop for a day or two to soften. Just be careful not to let them become overripe. Apricots are especially perishable; there’s a very small window of time between just-ripe and overripe apricots. Once stone fruit are ripe, you can store them in the refrigerator (which slows the ripening process) if you need to buy yourself some time.
Fresh fruit from the freezer
Got a few extra ripe peaches? Pit and cut them in chunks (don’t bother to peel), toss them in the food processor with a tablespoon of sugar per peach, and purée. Freeze the mixture in ice-cube trays. When you want a simple, refreshing dessert, quickly pulse about four cubes per serving in the food processor and scoop into bowls.
I like simple flavors and preparations for summer stone fruit.
Ripe summer peaches, plums, apricots, and nectarines are loaded with flavor, so they don’t need a lot of embellishment; a subtle hint of flavor and sweetness is all that’s needed to heighten what nature has already supplied. For instance, I like to make a compote of (uncooked) sliced plums and apricots with just a touch of orange and mint for a refreshing topping to light, buttery shortcakes. I let the fruit mixture sit for an hour or so to let all the flavors mingle. You could make the simplest of summer desserts just from a dish of sliced stone fruit that have been allowed to macerate in their own juices for a short time. Slice and combine the fruit only an hour or two before dinner, however; any longer and the flesh will become mushy.
That lovely flavor of mingling stone fruit juices intensifies when the fruit are baked—the secret to delicious summer cobblers. Jumbling peaches, apricots, and plums together in an almond-topped cobbler offers a complex blend of flavors, yet it doesn’t overwhelm the fruit with distracting ingredients. There’s no doubt, too, that a cobbler topping, a shortcake, or a light spice cake, as in the recipe for Upside-Down Apricot Cake, provides the perfect base to soak up the juiciness of the fruit, as well as supplying a slightly savory contrast for the fruit’s sweetness. And one of the most beautiful and delicious ways to showcase these fruit is by baking them into a rustic galette. Again, I pair just a little bit of lemon with plums to enhance, but not disguise, their flavor. Letting the fruit star in these simple preparations is the whole idea.
I never peel my stone fruit. I don’t think that the final result warrants the painstaking, time-consuming peeling process. In fact, I like keeping the skin on the fruit: it adds a deeper, richer color to compotes and baked desserts, and it helps retain the fruit’s nutritional content. The tougher skins of peaches and nectarines do however need some attention. I gently prick the skin with the sharp tines of a fork several times around the fruit before I proceed with the recipe. This method breaks up the fibrous skin during baking, yet keeps the flavors intact without bruising the flesh.