Yesterday was Bastille Day, France’s Independence Day which, like the US is celebrated with parades and red, white and blue flags. That’s where the similarity ends. At least from my vantage point. The parade was much more of a military parade with marching soldiers and imposing tanks flexing their military muscle down the Champs-Elysees rather than the baton twirling cheerleaders and Boy Scout troops sauntering up Main Street USA waving to Mom and Dad on the side. The crescendo was the French version of the Blue Angels screaming up the Champs-Elysees from La Defense emitting a red, white and blue trail of smoke.
Quite spectacular and impressive over all but I absolutely missed the down home, charming, local parades I grew up walking in with my Camp Fire Girl troops where your friends and grandparents would be screaming at you from the sidewalk and you’d end up at the town park with a bandstand and the local Kiwanas or Rotary Club playing the Star-Spangled Banner, Oh When the Saints and God Bless America on accordions and trumpets. Bar-b-ques would be sizzling, slurpees flowing and kids with huge cotton candies running everywhere. So how do I impart a little bit of the Good Ol’ USA into a French celebration? I was going to bake another apple pie but I thought that was too obvious and I refused to do that ubiquitous raspberry/shredded coconut/blueberry striped cake. . So I opted for a rustic apricot pie with hazelnuts and a little brandy splashed in for good measure. I love the French word for brandy: eau-de-vie, or water of life. Amen and pass the pie!
The apricots at the market nearly took my breath away. Vibrant orange to coral to red, perfectly plump and I so wanted to squeeze one but dare not face the wrath of the produce lady so I politely requested a kilo (a little more than two pounds) which she delicately measured into a little paper bag. I ran home and squeezed them all.
More decades ago than I care to admit, I was in my apricot period. Picasso had his rose period, I had my apricot period. Apricot colored clothes, stationery, sheets, apricot jam, apricots, apricot pie, apricot ice cream all inspired by a huge apricot tree in our yard that practically rained down those precious fruits. One of my many chores was to rake the yard and pick up the fruit that was rotting on the ground. More often than not, I would first pick a few pockets full of apricots, sit under the tree and tuck in, juice running down my chin, spotting my little apricot-colored tops. Within minutes the bees would arrive, their sugar radar at full tilt, and chase me away.
I find etymology fascinating and “apricot” did not disappoint. Apricots are one of the earlier fruits to ripen so no coincidence that it derives from the Latin praecoc or praecox which means early ripening or precocious….as in a precocious child or one who matures at a very early age. Who knew?!
Apricots have been traced back 4,000 years when a fruit belonging to the rose family was discovered on the mountain slopes of China. They were subsequently introduced into Asia Minor (the Persian Empire) and the Mediterranean where they flourished in that sultry climate. The Spanish Explorers brought apricots to the New World, specifically to California and the Spanish missions that dot the west coast of California.
In 1792, in what is now the heart of Silicon Valley, the first major production of apricots was recorded. In 1910, 96% of all apricots grown in the United States were produced in California and nearly 100 years later that statistic remains constant though most all of the apricot (and cherry, plum and peach) orchards were overrun by the hi-tech explosion and relocated to the San Joaquin Valley. Ironic that Apple took over the apricots. Sorry, couldn’t resist. A few fun facts on apricots include 1. no saturated fat, sodium, or cholesterol, 2. low fat, 3. high in vitamins A and C, and 4. A good source of potassium. You can’t afford not to eat them!
So when I saw these precocious apricots beckoning me from their precarious pyramid, I couldn’t resist. Nor could I resist the alliteration. Sorry, on to the pie!
Apricot Hazelnut Brandy Tart ~ Tarte aux Abricots avec Noisettes et Eau-de-Vie
1 package of pastry dough (sorry shuna, but i’m pastrily-challenged)
1.5 to 2 lbs of apricots
1/2 cup sugar
a few splashes of brandy
2 tbsp flour
1/2 cup creme fraiche
3 tbsp cup ground hazelnuts
1 small handful of whole hazelnuts
Options: Add bright raspberries or black berries for a gorgeous contrast. Scrape the insides of half a vanilla bean into the sugar. You can also add a few shakes of cinnamon or nutmeg and a few dots of butter on the top. A squeeze of half a lemon can also give it a kick. This one I kept simple. And if you want it really sweet, double the sugar.
1. Heat over to 400F / #7
2. Halve and pit the apricots. Lay them out on a dish cut side up and sprinkle with some of the sugar. Hold your thumb over the spout of the brandy bottle and splash some on all the apricots. Set aside and let sit for 15-20 minutes.
3. Roll out the dough. If you are using puff pastry, dock it or poke it all over with a fork. I used puff pastry here but a pate brisee or standard tart dough would work fine. You can also incorporate the ground almonds into the crust for more flavor if you are making it from scratch.
4. Cover the bottom with a thin layer of ground hazelnuts.
5. Bake it for 10 minutes. (this is called blink baking – browning a crust with nothing in it so that it cooks a bit which keeps it from getting soggy from the liquid filling.)
6. Mix the remaining sugar, eggs, flour, creme fraiche.
7. Chop whole hazelnuts and toast carefully in a non-stick pan on the stove.
8. Take it out pie crust from oven and pour in the sugar, eggs mixture.
9. Arrange the apricot halves around the pie dish as you’d like. I had a lot of apricots so I stood them up on their sides at an angle to fit them all in.
10. Sprinkle with toasted chopped hazelnuts.
11. Put tart in oven and reduce heat to 350F / #5. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes, depending on your oven. I’d rather cook it longer at a lower temperature.
12. Take out and let cool for at least an hour.
Bon appetit and Vive la France!