And then, there are other kinds of summer. And one that I am increasingly getting accustomed to is summer here in a small town in Nagano, over half a mile above sea level surrounded by mountains.
And there is abundance of summer produce, thanks to the nature's bounty in Nagano - both vegetables and fruits. Local stone fruits, in particular, have kept me busy (and happy) throughout the summer months.
When I came back to Nagano from my trip to Europe in early July, apricots had already appeared on store shelves. Though not my most favorite stone fruit there is, apricots are abundant in Nagano and last summer I decided to take advantage of it by going through kilos of them, making a whole lot of things with them (together with cherries). And I even started enjoying the fruit by the end of its short season.
Still not a complete convert though I may be, I was pretty ready to do a few things with fresh apricots again this summer...
mowie making. Fresh, ripe apricots were chopped up, and layered with chilled custard, whipped cram, and a drizzle of honey - simple and delicious.
While I enjoyed this little dessert, I still prefer apricots cooked than fresh, generally speaking;
Now I had bookmarked several apricot recipes I wanted to do, some were favorites from last summer and others I'd newly found this year. Then while I kept a little busy and couldn't find time to go grocery shopping, they were gone - before I could stock up on more apricots enough to try all the recipes. I always knew apricots have a very short season, but that didn't stop me from feeling a little disappointed.
So I had to use only what I already had at hand, and make only what I could make - something quick and easy, and preferably I'd be able to enjoy the fruit for a little longer.
last summer, using sugar; I enjoyed it but I decided to use make mine with honey instead.
This made a quite tart sauce, and although I don't think it has enough sugar in it for long-term storage like regular jams/preserves, it seems to keep perfectly fine for at least a month, perhaps even longer, tightly sealed and refrigerated.
last summer. It's a nice way to enjoy the fruit for a little longer than its natural season.
Speaking of enjoying fruits for an extended period of time, remember last summer when I was deep in liqueur-making mode and concocted more than half a dozen kinds of homemade liqueurs?
And I fully intended to make the brandy-based apricot liqueur again this year, but couldn't secure enough fruit - what a shame! I did manage to make another kind of liqueur, though:
this recipe that I'd found this year; it does not use honey nor cardamom, but as soon as I read the recipe, I was reminded of the peach cordial I made years ago using a similar recipe for peach cordial, which does use honey and cardamom. I remember liking it, and even made it again a few years later, using cardamom and rosemary, and enjoying it.
So I sort of putting the two recipes together here, by following the procedures of the first recipe, but using honey (in about 2/3 [by weight] of the sugar called for in the recipe) and adding cardamom. The whole thing was left to sit for about a week, then filtered and left for another month before serving.
The recipe suggests that it is good for making into a fool, so that was what I did.
our visit to lavender fields in July.)
I've tried the combination of apricots and lavender before and knew they pair well. I did look for a recipe for inspiration though, and this looked really nice, especially with the yogurt cream part - lighter than a more common mascarpone-based mixture.
Like I said, I didn't have a lot of apricots this year and wanted to make the most of what I did have, so I turned some of the liqueur-soaked apricots into another thing:
last summer, from one of my favorite cookbooks My Favourite Ingredients (Quadrille Publishing, 2008) written by Skye Gyngell, the head chef at the now Michelin-starred cafe restaurant at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, London.
This clafoutis was boozy not just because of the apricots, but the cherries, as well.
last summer's favorite, and another favorite from Skye Gyngell's My Favourite Ingredients; the recipe is now available for view online here.
By the way, these were the only things that I made with fresh Bing cherries this summer, apart from the easy-to-make and delicious cherry sorbet, which, again, was a comeback of one of last summer's favorites. I seem to be making the same stuff over and over again, but that's what happens when you like something so much. But I do wish I had more fruits (and time) to make somethings new, as well.
Therefore, I was really excited about something I could have in abundance this summer:
I was looking forward to doing it again this summer, and was really keen as we went to their orchard on one morning in early August. It was one of those really hot days, and we started really early (6 o'clock in the morning!) to avoid the heat (or so we tried; it was already pretty hot). And when we came home with nearly five kilos (about ten pounds) of berries between two of us, it was still before 9 o'clock.
So after a quick shower, I put a few things on a table for breakfast, with our fresh blueberries at center stage - just a few slices of bread and tubs of cream cheese. Simple stuff.
Nagato Farm and Highland Ice-Cream Factory.
Nagato Farm is fairly close to where I am now, and I've visited there before, although never tried their cream cheese. Highland Ice-Cream Factory, meanwhile, is located in Kaida Kogen Highland in the west of Nagano Prefecture near the borders with Gifu Prefecture, about 2-hour drive from here (which, by my standard, is far) and I've never been there.
Keiko in England had sent me a link to the article last month, for she knew I was now in Nagano.
Among the things mentioned in the article, what caught my attention was Highland Ice-Cream Factory's cream cheese, which was described as "a soft, silky concoction closer to salty crème fraîche than to anything packaged in silver foil and sold at supermarkets". Sounds good, doesn't it?
So there it was, we had two small jars of fresh cream cheese in our hands, in less than two weeks after I had first read about it in the magazine article. It was fairly expensive even more than regular cream cheese, but worth every penny (or yen). With its spreadable texture more like cheese cream than cream cheese, it was definitely the creamiest and freshest cream cheese I've ever had; the article was quite right in comparing it to creme fraiche.
With the really fresh blueberries and really creamy cream cheese at hand, I decided to make a little more effort to celebrate these excellent ingredients...
Once you have your graham crackers, you're almost there...
I took an idea (and some of the recipe) from The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern (Random House, 2001), a terrific baking book written by pastry chef Claudia Fleming. In the book she creates blueberry-cream cheese tarts with graham cracker crust, and I made only the crackers and blueberry topping and skipped the cheese cream because
Of course you could easily have just fresh blueberries as is, but I like the way this compote brings out the flavor of the fresh berries. And you can have it with all sorts of things.
Tea & Sympathy in New York, which you can see here, and tossed some fresh blueberries in the dough; blueberry scones with blueberry compote, if you will. Again, I had them with the fresh cream cheese instead of regular cream.
And as I busied myself with eating blueberries, baking with blueberries eating more blueberries, other summer fruits arrived....
"Wasser" - all grown in Nagano, mostly from local farms in this area.
While white peach (Japanese, please) may be my best favorite among summer fruits - or all fruits, even -, white nectarines have been growing on me. I think I first (knowingly) tried white nectarines in Australia back in 2006. I'd never seen them in Japan, and though I'd always enjoyed a yellow-fleshed kind in general, these sweeter, white-fleshed fruits quickly won me over.
Like white peaches, I think white nectarines are best eaten fresh - chilled and uncooked. So the season's first basket of white nectarines were enjoyed very simply, mostly eaten over the kitchen sink.
If I must be honest, I thought about making a tart; a proper one of fluted cookie shell filled with pastry cream and fresh fruits, you know. But being a lazy baker, I couldn't quite face the prospect of doing all the work involved in tart making, especially in this heat - so I quickly gave it up in favor of easier options, such as cinnamon toast. Or crumble.
I baked simple crumble topping with chopped fresh mint leaves mixed in, and sprinkled some over a bowl of sliced chilled white and yellow nectarines and peaches, as well as blueberries, that had been tossed in just a bit of honey and juice of lemon. Served on one particularly hot morning, these fresh summer fruits with mint crumble topping - or fruit salad crumble, if you prefer - might just have been the best breakfast we had this summer.
That said, I also made a more standard crumble...
here (the softer version).
And another home baker-friendly thing that I seem to make most often is scones.
I did last summer. Scones usually come along really quick, and really, there is nothing like starting a day with just-baked scones for breakfast, if you ask me . These were nectarine and blueberry scones, made using this recipe.
Now because nectarines also seem to have a short season, I stocked up on them every time I saw them when shopping, determined not to repeat my mistake with the apricots, thinking I might not see them again on my next grocery shopping trip.
But I did need to be careful to use all of the fruits before they spoil. Other than slicing some up and popping them into the freezer for later use, I made another batch of liqueur, based on the same recipe for the apricot-cardamom liqueur which you might remember seeing a few minutes ago, again using honey and cardamom.
Now, half the reason why I made this liqueur was to have the boozy soaked fruit, which we'd found to be delightful after making it with apricots last month. And the soaked nectarines turned out to be just as delicious as the apricots had been.
And while waiting for my liqueurs to be ready to drink, I decided to fix something boozy to drink now with my stone fruits...
You can add some honey and/or juice of lemon to balance tartness and sweetness to your taste, but mine came out just good with nectarines and bubbles only.
Now, after a couple of weeks of full-on heat and humidity, the weather took a sudden turn to grayer, wetter one past mid August. Even people in Tokyo had a few unexpectedly cool days, and it was downright chilly up here in the mountains in Nagano.
This prompted me to bake something with a little warmer touch - autumnal, even?
donna hay magazine for inspiration, and found a recipe for maple-glazed nectarine and almond bread (in issue 49, Feb/Mar 2010), which sounded a perfect choice here; nectarines I had in abundance, and maple syrup and almond should add a bit of warmth that I was craving, even though it involved yeast, which I never feel confident in handling.
This proved to be not an issue, to my relief. It was one of the easiest-to-prepare yeasted dough (though quite sticky and hard to work with at the beginning), and rose beautifully. What was more of an issue was that it burned quickly, as you can tell from the picture above. Ouch.
It went alright this time (phew!), but honestly, it tasted pretty good whether it was a bit burned or not.
And one end-of-summerish baking project promptly tuned into another, as I posted a photo of this sweet bread on twitter; a friend responded saying she'd thought it was a tart... and the next thing I knew, we got all excited about the idea of making summer fruit tarts, swapping a few well-trusted recipes, and set to make tarts.
Chez Panisse. (You can see the same recipe for the galette dough here.)
The recipe used plums and pluots, but I used yellow nectarines and another peach-nectarine hybrid; I can't remember the name but I assure you that they tasted pretty much like yellow nectarines, perhaps a bit less tart. I also made my galettes small so the baking time would be shorter.
Even with a slightly cooler air, it was still a little too warm to handle a tart dough, but I think I did it alright.
Okay, one last thing from my recent late summer baking streak: chocolate! Maybe it's just me, but you tend to steer clear of baking with chocolate during warm months, don't you? Well, I do. But on one recent evening when the temperature dropped so much I seriously considered turning the room heating on, I got the chocolate baking bug all of sudden.
I still wanted to keep it more or less summery, though; not all super-rich, gooey, and heavy full-on chocolate desserts that we crave when cold air creeps in.
I was first looking for a recipe for cakey brownies than chewy kinds, for I thought it would go better with fresh berries. But I ended up with my go-to brownie recipe of late, from Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes by David Lebovitz (Ten Speed Press, 2010) . I've made brownies with this recipe more than a few times now, using different mix-ins and flavors, and it always turns out very chocolaty, delicious brownies. (David has posted a flour-less version of it just recently, and I'm sure they'll taste just as good. )
But as I took them out of the fridge (I'd chilled them so I could cut them into neat slices) and tried a slice still chilled, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it tasted almost like chocolate truffles - not chewy, but soft and silky, melt-in-your-mouth. Together with the tart berries, it made a perfectly delightful summertime treat. Or perhaps, made in the dead of winter using frozen berries and eaten in front of the fireplace, they would remind you of the beautiful summer without actually chilling you to the bone.
So all in all, the fruits have been excellent this summer; we are spoiled.
But we just got a box of large, beautiful white peaches grown in the northern part of Nagano, so I'm excited to work my way through them. At the top of my list is white peach-rose champagne gelee with champagne-peach sorbet that I've been making every summer for the past few years.
And I'm not done with summer fruits in general, just yet, as peaches are still around and soon prune plums and figs will arrive. And I'm still in the middle of my summer-long project of bachelor's jam that I started last month.
Made mostly with white wine, it wasn't as strong as many spirits-based homemade liqueurs, but light and sweet, very drinkable - perhaps a little too much so. They will not keep for years like many liqueurs but are meant to be consumed soon. So these will be what we'll be drinking for the coming month or so, while it is still (hopefully) warm enough for us to sit outside on the balcony before autumn arrives, earlier than in many other parts of the country.
So whether it is still hot or already cool where you are, I hope you've all had a wonderful time over the summer (or perhaps winter if that is the case), and that you've enjoyed the season's bounty as much as I did here.