I was shopping in Sprouts recently and found myself following the wonderful scent of fresh nectarines wafting across the store when I ran into a young man with a man bun who was on the same mission.
“I could smell the nectarines from across the store,” I confessed a little sheepishly as we converged at the nectarine display.
“Me, too,” he said. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
My heart melted. How many people do you find in life who can recognize the scent of nectarines?
So, bags of nectarines in hand, we ran away for a lost weekend. (OK. I made that last part up.)
Life is good, though.
It is stone fruit season.
I can NEVER get my fill of cherries, nectarines, peaches or apricots. But, truth be told, my heart belongs to plums, particularly plums with deep red flesh. I think they are beautiful, too.
So, what is it with stone fruits? They appear in abundance at farmers markets this time of year and then, seemingly, disappear in the blink of an eye. Here is their story.
Stone fruits are members of the rose family.
Fifteen species of stone fruits are native to the northern hemisphere but the “stars” of the stone fruit world originated mostly in Asia. The peach, for example, is believed to have reached the Mediterranean region from China (via Persia after which the peach gets its latin name–Prunus persica) around 300 BCE. Cherries originated in western Asia and southeast Europe. Apricots were imported into the Roman Empire from their native China.
Almonds are related to stone fruits, too. Domesticated by the Bronze Age, almonds are the seed of a drupe, a stone fruit closely related to the peach and the plum.
With modern hybridization techniques, there are many many types of stone fruits and lots of crosses. Most of us have heard of pluots (plums crossed with apricots), but the possibilities are endless. Have you, for instance, heard of apriums (apricots crossed with plums with the emphasis on the apricots), or peacotum (a peach, apricot and plum cross)? How about pluerry (a cross of cherries and plums)–that sounds really interesting.
Stone fruits are a good news bad news story. The good news is that they are rich in antioxidants, so they are good for you. The bad news is that their tissues break down and turn mealy in cold storage, making their season shorter than that of fruits like apples and pears. Also, because stone fruits do not store starch in their tissues and, therefore, don’t continue to ripen after harvest, they get softer but they don’t get sweeter. Bummer.
I’m not the only one to believe that stone fruits are one of Mother Nature’s true works of art. Artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aiken has produced grafted stone fruit trees as art projects. His trees can now be found in museums and personal art collections. For us Californians, one of his trees is planted at the Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose.
Here is an artist’s rendering of what one of Van Aiken’s trees will look like at maturity. Those beautiful colors remind me of the delicate pink and lavender jades I admired in Southeast Asian jewelry stores. What could possibly be more lovely?
Here is a link to a video about Van Aiken’s art projects. It is worth your time to watch. In a world that has seemingly gone mad, it is comforting to watch a gentle man pursuing beauty for no other reason than the enjoyment of the tree’s beauty and the connection it’s creation gives him to nature and conservation. (Van Aiken only uses heirloom, native and antique varieties of stone fruits in his grafts. When his trees fruit, people can sample varieties of fruit seldom available in markets.)
Like Van Aiken’s vision of “The Tree of 40 Fruits,” this stone fruit cake is a real stunner. It is red. It is orange. It is purple. It sits on your table and it glistens.
If you are one of those people who shuffles into the kitchen for a late night indulgence (you know who you are), what could better brighten the depths of any midnight than a generous slice of this cake? It wouldn’t hurt to keep a photo of the tree of 40 fruits on your refrigerator either. It is an ode to beauty.
The link to the original Gourmet Magazine recipe appears at the bottom of this post.
Recipe: Peach, Plum and Blueberry Cake
1 1/2 C. all-purpose flour
1/2 C. sugar
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 stick (1/2 C.) cold unsalted butter (cut into 1/2 inch cubes)
1 large egg
1 t. vanilla
1/2 C. sugar
2 T. all-purpose flour
1 T. quick-cooking tapioca
2 lbs. peaches or plums or a combination
1 C. blueberries
1 T. fresh lemon juice
Using your food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt until well combined. Add cold butter cubes and pulse until the flour mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea-sized lumps of butter in the mixture. Add egg and vanilla and pulse until the dough clumps and begins to form a ball.
Press the dough onto the bottom and evenly as far as you can way up the sides of a springform pan with floured fingertips. Chill pastry in the pan for about 10 minutes until it is firm.
Put your oven rack in the middle position in your oven. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Grind 2 T. sugar with the flour and the tapioca in a heavy-duty blender or food processor. You want this mixture to be powdery. Transfer this mixture to a large bowl and stir in the remaining 6 T. sugar. Add the peaches (and/or plums), blueberries and lemon juice and gently toss the mixture to coat the fruit. Spoon the filling into the chilled pastry and bake (loosely covered with a sheet of foil) until the filling is bubbling in the middle and the crust is golden. This should take approximately 1 and 3/4 hours.
Take cake from the oven and cool for 20 minutes on a rack. After 20 minutes, run a knife around the edge of the cake and remove the sides of the springform pan.
Let cake cool and serve either warm or at room temperature.
Cook’s Notes: This cake is at its most flavorful and beautiful on the first day after baking. The editors of Gourmet included a note with this cake recipe cautioning cooks that the cake can burn if cooked as directed in a dark pan rather than a light-colored metal pan because of the cake’s high sugar content. They recommended that those using a dark-colored pan should reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
Here is the link to the original Gourmet Magazine recipe for this wonderful cake: