Working with seasonal foods is something that I consider very important, and so much more than a trend or philosophy. If you're not taking advantage of local seasonal produce at your restaurant, you're selling yourself short. But it can be hard to incorporate things with brief yet glorious availability.
When you're juggling the production of an entire dessert menu like I have, just finding time to test a new idea can take up a considerable portion of your day, putting you behind on crucial components of current menu items. You can plan ahead, but with spring and summer fruits it can be hard to get inspired without actually catching the scent or even better, tasting the produce in question. You don't know in the dead of winter if the summer will bring a bounty of juicy peaches or mealy rocks, or if the strawberries will be perfume-sweet or watery and sad. Last summer was a disappointing one for produce all around, but this year already promises to be a lot better.
Case in point: I've been eating juicy apricots for the past week or so. Fresh apricots have a fairly short season. They're not exactly local, with the bulk of the crop originating in California, but when they're good, they're worth it. Truthfully I normally don't even eat them raw (this year's are just so good). Apricots, as every pastry chef knows, become magical when cooked.
Poaching is the easiest way to cook your apricots. By halving them and simmering in a light syrup, you unlock the full potential of the fruit. A plain light simple syrup (just sugar and water) works fine, but apricot plays particularly well with floral tones. The simplest way to incorporate that is by using a nice flowery honey in your syrup, but you can also infuse it with nearly any edible flower or looseleaf tea. Lavender, jasmine, rosebuds, chrysanthemum, sencha, and strong black tea are all wonderful with apricot. Another flower that goes particularly well with apricots? Hops!
Yes, hops as in beer. There's even a beer called Aprihop. Hops can be a little difficult to find for general cooking purposes unless you go through brewer's channels, so instead of infusing apricots with hops I decided to pair the poached fruit with a beer sabayon. I'm not a huge fan of beer in general, but I do enjoy a nice summery wheat ale once or twice a year, often of the fruity variety, so I decided to build on that and add a barely sweet toasty whole wheat shortbread to the party.
As for choosing my beer, I wanted to go with something relatively easy to obtain and recognizable to any beer drinker. Sam Adams summer ale is fairly common across the country, and is tasty and light. Because it gets some of its flavor from grains of paradise, I also added them to the shortbread for a peppery, fruity accent.
This dessert comes out looking impressive, but it's as mind-blowingly simple as it is complexly delicious. It would make a gorgeous end to any outdoor early summer meal. The apricots and shortbread can be done a day or two ahead, and the sabayon completed right before serving.
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About the Author: Anna Markow is a pastry chef obsessed with doing things that no one else does and giving unusual ingredients their time to shine. You can follow her sometimes-pastry-related thoughts on Twitter @VerySmallAnna.