I noticed this week that the first apricots of the year are coming into season.
This filled me with pleasure, as they’re my very favourite stone fruit. Much as I like peaches and plums, there’s something about that sweet perfumed flavour and sweetness that puts the apricot on top for me.
Not only does it make just about the best jam in the world, but it’s brilliant for pairing with most pastry recipes, from the simplest tart to the fanciest cakes.
When semi-dried, the apricot lends a wonderful chew to traditional fruitcakes and breads, and let’s not forget how the apricot is also fantastic in so many savoury dishes, especially with pork. But it’s the sweetness I’m craving after the winter without them, so it’s to the pastry kitchen we return this week.
A spot of proper baking, and one of my very favourite things, choux pastry. It’s a recipe that seems so hard to make, yet it really couldn’t be simpler.
Many people shy away from it, because it looks like a bit of a faff, but really it’s almost impossible to get wrong, and you can do so much with choux pastry, it’d be a shame never to get to grips with it.
You could make wonderful savoury cheese gougères, a wonderful pre-dinner nibble; warm and puffed with tasty Gruyère cheese, and excellent with a glass of Beaujolais. And then there’s the desserts and patisserie – beautiful éclairs, bursting with cold whipped cream, topped with a thick glaze. Profiteroles, stuffed with vanilla ice-cream and slathered in hot chocolate sauce – just heavenly.
And what about that recently revived French classic cake, the croquembouche? This conical creation, made of choux buns filled with cream and set with crunchy caramel, is now a wedding staple across Britain, after years of obscurity in French patisserie books.
Admittedly, if you’re going to tackle a croquembouche, you’re deadly serious about this cooking lark, because it’s not easy, and requires a great deal of skill, not to mention a bit of pricey specialist equipment. It’s a thing of beauty, but really only for the most dedicated home cook with lots of time on their hands, and ideally a friend or relative about to be married.
So let’s keep things simple with a classic choux bun, shall we? Essentially a large profiterole or rounded éclair, the choux bun is a great way to show off fruity fillings, whether it’s fresh strawberries, compotes of blackcurrant or raspberry, or fridge jam-type concoctions, as we’re making here.
I decided just to make a baked compote of the apricots, with a little sugar, lemon and some leaves of lemon thyme. Thyme is a lovely herb to mix with apricots; they are so harmonious together, and the lemony variety is absolutely perfect.
We need something creamy here, too, and you could use a straight Chantilly cream with terrific results, but I wanted a richness that only crème patissière can bring.
That rich, sweet custard, deeply-flecked with fresh vanilla seeds is perfect when sandwiched into the soft bun with a good dollop of tart apricot compote.
And that’s really all you need, but of course, I’m a chef and we have a pathological need to mess about with things, so I’ve tarted mine up with the addition of some crunchy spun sugar and the added flavour of deeply-toasted almonds. It’s a nut which loves apricots – just look at any patissier’s window display – and rounds the dish off nicely; a perfect little teatime treat, and a lovely way to make use of the first of the year’s apricots.
FOR THE CHOUX BUNS:
170g unsalted butter
1 teaspoon caster sugar
210g plain flour
6 medium eggs, lightly beaten
FOR THE APRICOTS:
150g unrefined golden caster sugar
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
A few sprigs of lemon thyme (regular is fine)
FOR THE CRèME PATISSIèRE:
350ml full-cream milk
2 vanilla pods
4 medium free-range egg yolks
65g unrefined golden caster sugar
15g plain flour
Toasted flaked almonds
Lemon thyme leaves (regular is fine)
First, prepare the apricots. Halve and stone the fruit, then chop into small pieces. Preheat the oven to 200°C / Gas 6 and line a deep roasting tray with non-stick baking paper.
Place the apricots, sugar and lemon in the lined tray, add some fresh lemon thyme leaves and stir to mix a little and then bake for 30-40 minutes or until the apricots have softened and begun to lightly caramelise. Remove from the oven and cool in the tray for 30 minutes, then transfer to an airtight container and keep refrigerated until needed.
Now for the choux buns; put the butter, water and caster sugar in a deep saucepan. Cook over a medium heat until the butter has melted, then bring the liquid to a rolling boil. Tip in the flour and beat to mix with a wooden spoon, until the mixture is smooth and comes away from the sides of the pan to form a soft doughy lump.
Remove from the heat, spread the pastry out on a plate or tray, and chill for 30 minutes. Remove from the fridge and tip into a bowl. Beat in the eggs, one by one, until the mixture becomes shiny and smooth, with a nice dollopy consistency – you may not need all the eggs. Spoon this into a piping bag fitted with a 4mm star nozzle. Preheat the oven to 200°C / Gas 6. Line a large baking sheet with baking parchment. Place a shallow roasting tin in the base of the oven and pour in some boiling water (this helps to create essential steaminess during baking). Pipe 8cm wide domes of choux onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving a few centimetres of space between each one. Place in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes or until the buns are lovely and golden.
Remove from the oven, transfer to a wire rack and invert. Poke a small hole in the base of each bun to allow the steam to escape, then leave them to cool completely.
For the custard, split the vanilla pods, and place the seeds into a bowl with the egg yolks. Put the pods into a pan with the milk, and heat until just about to boil. Whisk the flours and sugar into the egg yolks until smooth, and strain the hot milk over, whisking until you have a smooth custard.
Return to the pan and reheat gently. It will start to bubble and thicken alarmingly, but keep whisking for a few minutes to make sure the flour has cooked out.
Tip the custard into a bowl, quickly cover the surface with clingfilm (this prevents a skin forming) and refrigerate until completely chilled.
To assemble, cut the choux buns in half widthways. Spoon or pipe a little crème pat onto the lower half of each bun, and top with a dollop of apricot compote. Add a few toasted almonds if required. Pop the lid on, and dust with icing sugar.
Serve immediately. At this point, you could add extra touches such as a little extra thyme, more almonds, spun sugar or whatever you fancy.