The farmers’ market is an ever-changing garden of sensual delights. Between the rainbow of berries available this month and juicy cantaloupes, apricots, peaches, and nectarines, the aromas wafting through the air are utterly intoxicating. We’ll continue to be seduced by many of these fruits throughout the summer, but apricot season is short but sweet…and a uniquely California phenomenon not to be missed.
Anyone who has ever purchased an apricot at the supermarket has probably already learned an expensive lesson: don’t bother. Well, okay, if you’re fortunate enough to find fruits that are organically- and locally-grown they may indeed taste fine, but you will surely pay a premium for the rarity. This is yet another time when shopping at the farmers’ market is the only logical choice.
In order for apricots to develop flavor and texture they need to ripen on the tree. Unfortunately the tree-ripening process also leaves them soft and far too fragile to ship without suffering damage from bruising. This may not sound like a problem for locavores, but many of the apricot orchards that once blessed California have been replaced by housing developments and office parks, seriously reducing sources for tree-ripened fruit. Due to increased land values apricot growers who held their ground and stayed in business now must often rely on selling to large commercial canners, jam-producers, and other fruit preservers in order to remain solvent.
To appease demand from consumers throughout the United States, scientists thought the answer was to develop bruise-resistant apricot varieties designed to look quite glamorous for weeks at a time and withstand all sorts of abuse during transit to supermarkets. Too good to be true? You bet. One bite and you’ll know you’ve been had. It’s frightening to think there is an entire generation that assumes this is how apricots should taste. If you want to experience a real California apricot that isn’t mealy or sour or flavorless—and there’s no apricot tree in your own backyard—you simply have to buy them directly from a grower. And the best place to do that is at your local farmers’ market.
When you first encounter a golden pile of tree-ripened apricots at the market, no doubt you’ll immediately want to eat your fill out-of-hand; but be sure to buy a few extra for the following updated American classic recipe.
If in the past you have been traumatized by cloyingly sweet upside-down cakes that showcase thin rings of canned pineapple and iridescent maraschino cherries, set aside your prejudice and give this one a try. Baked in a cast iron skillet for a touch of nostalgia (and a lot of soul), with juicy stone fruits, a tender crumb from buttermilk, and the subtle crunch of cornmeal, this cake is lovely all by its lonesome—but even better when accompanied by a dollop of crème fraîche or softly whipped cream.
APRICOT-CHERRY UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE with Toasted Almonds
Good news! Apricots do not need to be peeled. Right before using, rinse them under cold water and pat dry. To halve and pit an apricot, use a small, sharp knife to cut along the visible seam that goes all around the fruit; then twist the halves gently in opposite directions, pull apart, and use the tip of the knife to remove the pit.
1/3 cup California sliced almonds
1-1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
10 to 12 tree-ripened apricots, 2- to 2 1/2 inches in diameter (about 1 1/2 pounds total), halved and pitted
10 to 12 tree-ripened Bing cherries, halved and pitted
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal or instant polenta
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 cup buttermilk
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the almonds in a small baking pan and bake, stirring once or twice, until just golden and fragrant, 6 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool. Do not turn off the oven.
- In a 10-inch well-seasoned cast-iron skillet*, melt the half-stick (4 tablespoons) of the butter over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and sprinkle the brown sugar evenly over the butter. Cook without stirring for 3 minutes. (It’s okay if not all of the sugar has melted.) Remove the skillet from the heat.
- Place each cherry half, cut-side down, into the center cavity of each apricot half. Carefully arrange the apricot halves, cherry-side down, in concentric circles in the skillet, covering as much of the surface as possible. Scatter the toasted almonds in the spaces between the apricots.
- In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; whisk gently to blend.
- Using an electric mixer on medium-high, beat the remaining 1 stick (8 tablespoons) of butter with the granulated sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Mix in the vanilla and almond extracts. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with the buttermilk in 2 additions (beginning and ending with the flour mixture) and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Mix until just blended.
- Spoon large dollops of the batter into the skillet, taking care not to disturb the fruit and nuts. Gently smooth the top with a spatula. Bake in the middle of the oven until the cake is golden on top and the center springs back when lightly touched, about 45 minutes. Cool in the skillet for 20 minutes on a wire rack.
- Place a serving plate upside down on top of the skillet and, using pot holders to hold the plate and skillet together tightly, invert the cake onto the plate. Use a rubber spatula to scrape off any of the syrup that may remain in the skillet and drizzle it over the cake. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. This cake is best eaten the same day it is made, but can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days…if it lasts that long. Serves 8.
* ‘Don’t own a cast-iron skillet? You should really get one; but I’ll save that lecture for another day. For now, you can substitute another heavy nonstick skillet that is at least 2 inches deep. If that skillet is not oven-proof, wrap the plastic handle securely in a double-thickness of aluminum foil before baking the cake.