August 26, 2011

fruits of summer: best of summer

I've said it many times before, but I'm saying it again: I don't like summer. I just don't. But here I mean summers in Tokyo, to be more specific. Weeks of 90F/33C temperatures combined with 90% humidity isn't something I can happily have. I dread it, to say the least. But that is the kind of summer that I've had for most of my life, whether I like it or not (of course not).

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.
It does get fairly hot during the day and it is still very humid, but once you're in the shade it's not too bad, and evenings are cool and mostly pleasant. I really can't complain.

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...
The first thing I made with this year's apricots was apricot fool that I'd seen 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;
So I made apricot and blackberry cobbler, using frozen berries that I needed to use up. I forgot to make a note of which recipe I used for the cobbler topping and now I can't remember it at all (oops), but I think it was a pretty standard recipe, and it was good.

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.
One thing I made was honeyed apricot sauce, which was simply apricots stewed with some honey (no water added) until the fruit all collapsed into thick sauce-like consistency. My mother made a large pot of this 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.
Other than serving it with our morning bowl of yogurt, I made ice cream with the sauce by simply whizzing it in the blender together with heavy cream, and a bit more honey, and freezing the mixture. This honey apricot ice cream was another thing that I made and enjoyed 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?
Over the last half a year or so, we have tried and enjoyed them, some better than others. Pictured above are some of them: from left to right, apricot liqueur made using brandy, and peach liqueurs using brandy, vodka, and gin, respectively. (There isn't much left, but I didn't make them in a large quantity to begin with.) My sister was partial to the peach liqueur made with brandy, while mom seemed to enjoy the apricot liqueur in particular.

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:
Halved and stoned apricots were heated gently in dry white wine along with honey and a few crushed cardamom pods, to which vodka was then added. I made this apricot liqueur with cardamom by adapting 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.
Now, unlike the other apricot liqueur I made last year that needed to be left sitting for several months with the fruit left in the brandy, here the apricots were still fairly fresh and entirely edible when they were taken out of the liqueur, though admittedly very boozy.

The recipe suggests that it is good for making into a fool, so that was what I did.
Well, more or less. Instead of a fool, I made a trifle, which involves even less work. The only trouble I took, though very small, was to whip some heavy cream. And oh, I made a lavender syrup by cooking sweet white wine (not dessert wine) with honey and lavender buds, to make lavender-apricot trifle. (I guess I've been rather into lavender-flavored food since 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.
Trifles are all meant to be pretty boozy (right??), but with the liqueur-soaked fruit, this one was really boozy - and we loved it! In fact, the soaked apricots were tasty on their own, and I suspect you'd want to make the liqueur just to have the soaked apricots.

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:
Clafoutis, together with cherries - hence apricot and cherry clafoutis, a boozy version. Again, this was one of the things that I made and enjoyed 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.
I made cherry liqueur (pictured above [right]; more about it on another post), and used the soaked cherries in the clafoutis. Pictured left is brandied cherries, another return of 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:
Blueberries! We are lucky to know someone who has a large blueberry field near us, where we get to pick the berries to our heart's content and buy them at a very reasonable price. Last year, we ended up picking a total of ten kilos (over 20 pounds) of blueberries over the summer at their orchard, a majority of which we kept in the freezer and have enjoyed up until recently.

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.
Simple, yes, but it was something special, too; I got fresh cream cheese from two of dairy farms/shops here in Nagano: 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.
It was a bit bizarre how these cream cheeses reached our table. I came to know about these products from (more or less) local dairy farms through an article featuring cheesemakers here in Nagano Prefecture, in a foreign cheese magazine called Culture (summer 2011); my friend 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?
I was talking to my mother about it, and turned out someone she knows at work is from the area, who happened to be going there in a few days' time. The said someone did know about the place ("there is often a long line at the shop", she said, according to my mom), and kindly agreed to get their cream cheese for us.

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...
... by making graham crackers! Have you ever baked your own graham crackers? If not, your are to discover something that may so easily be purchased in a box yet is infinitely better when made at home. Basically, if you bake cookies, you can bake graham crackers and you really should.

Once you have your graham crackers, you're almost there...
... to homemade graham crackers with blueberry compote and fresh cream cheese, that is. It's what I'd call a knocked-down version of blueberry cheesecake; it somehow sounds better than cheese on cracker, right?

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 I couldn't bother to make it I wanted to showcase the extra-fresh cream cheese, you know.
This blueberry compote is my favorite thing to make from this gem of a dessert book. First you cook up some of your blueberries with a bit of sugar, pass the mixture through a sieve, then toss the fresh whole berries in the puree.

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.
For instance, serve your scones with some compote instead of your usual jam, as I did here. I baked scones using one of my favorite scone recipe from 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....
... most of which were stone fruits, of course. One mid-August afternoon I went on a stone fruit buying binge and came home with loads of them: nectarines (both white and yellow), white peaches, and a hybrid between peach and nectarine called for whatever reason "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.
I was long wishing we'd have them in Japan, and to my utter excitement, these past couple of years I started spotting white nectarines at stores, though only occasionally. And this summer, at long last, they seemed to be really taking off; I'm seeing a lot of them both at green markets and supermarkets.

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.
But I did manage to take some beyond the sink and over to table, like I did here; white nectarines, together with blueberries, were simply served with a drizzle of lavender-infused honey, with cinnamon-cardamom toast bites alongside. Those were basically just cinnamon toast, cut-out into bite-size pieces and flavored with cardamom as well as cinnamon.

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 seem to turn every kind of fresh fruits that arrives in my kitchen into crumble. Simple, easy to make, homey, tasty. I adore fruit crumbles. But here, because I wanted to have my white nectarines uncooked, I made them into a non-cook crumble; well, the crumble topping was cooked, for sure, but the fruits weren't.

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...
... using other types of nectarines than white ones, mind you. Contrary to white nectarines, I find yellow nectarines often tasting better cooked, like most of yellow peaches. This was nectarine and blueberry crumble, using a standard oat crumble I found here (the softer version).

And another home baker-friendly thing that I seem to make most often is scones.
I don't get all that enthusiastic about turning the oven on and making the whole place even hotter in the middle of summer, but I find myself making scones rather often, as 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.
Luckily for me, they have been around for weeks on end, and as a result, we've had a large basket full of them at any given time over the month of August. No complaints here - the place smelled lovely.

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.
Made with yellow nectarines, this nectarine liqueur with cardamom took on a bright shade of orange-ish red from the skin of the fruit, a nice contrast to the orange-ish yellow of the apricot liqueur.

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.
They made a really good snack as is, but this time I opted to make simply mousse with them by processing the soaked nectarines (skin removed) in the blender, and combining the puree with some lightly whipped cream (or simply adding cream into the same blender with the puree and processing the whole thing further - less washing up to do), then adding a bit more honey (if necessary) and prepared unflavored gelatin. This liqueured nectarine mousse was a true treat for grown-ups - really boozy, and perfectly smooth and sweet.

And while waiting for my liqueurs to be ready to drink, I decided to fix something boozy to drink now with my stone fruits...
White nectarine bellini, anyone? Just whiz a chilled stoned white nectarine or two in the blender and top it with sparkling wine and you have a fizzy, frothy goodness with the loveliest shade of pink.

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.
But a slice or two of fresh nectarine didn't hurt, either.

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?
I was flipping though some of old issues of the 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.
I halved the dough after the first rise, and baked only a half on the day I made it, while putting the remaining half in the freezer. And I baked this reserved half on the following morning, this time with some blueberries in addition to nectarines, and with a little more care so as not to let it burn again.

It went alright this time (phew!), but honestly, it tasted pretty good whether it was a bit burned or not.
A little about the bread; it consists of a sweet brioche-like bread and sweet almond topping, a bit like frangipane. Making this bread involves a lot of measuring, but the process was fairly straightforward - kneading the dough, and mixing the almond topping. It'd taste good with other fruits, too.

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.
And by tarts, we meant those rustic-looking, free-form ones that are often called galettes, which is a lot less fussy to make than traditional tarts. I used a recipe my friend shared with me, from Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook (William Morrow Cookbooks, 1999), by none other than Alice Water, the legendary proprietor of 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.
There was nothing special about the recipe, or so it seemed. But these (individual-sized) nectarine galettes tasted really good, especially the light and flaky dough.

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.
Served with some vanilla ice cream, the galettes made a lovely teatime treat as we sat on the balcony on one fine late afternoon, enjoying the gentle breeze and last rays of sunlight of the day.

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.
So I settled on brownies, using summer fruits. Somehow nectarines didn't seem to quite fit in, so I went for blueberries and raspberries, both of which I had frozen. And here you go: double-berry brownies.

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. )
So I knew these brownies would be delicious, but then a problem arose: the day after I baked them, the temperature shot straight up and it got hot and humid all over again; I didn't crave rich chocolate brownies any longer.

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.
White nectarines have definitely been the star of the season, though I haven't eaten white peaches nearly as much as I'd usually do so far.

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.
In the meantime, a full month has past since I made the apricot liqueur last month, so we cracked it open the other day. (For the nectarine liqueur, we still have to wait for another few weeks.)

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.
And have a good weekend, too! -cxx


Ta said...

What an incredible post. Your photos are amazing!

Unknown said...

Great pics. This post is the enhancement of summer fruits! Amazing!

forestlily said...

What a beautiful post! Amazingly gorgeous photos. I love peaches, too. This post is the summary of summer!

chinesesouppot said...

Beautiful photos! I especially would love to try the white nectarine bellini since I love summer fruits so much.

Have you tried ever tried a chilled Hawthorn Berry Honey Tea? It is another refreshing drink for the hot summer months, and it is a good alternative to regular iced tea.

FamilySpice said...

Gorgeous pictures! I wouldn't know which dessert to try first - they all made me drool!

Mingou said...

David Lebovitz's flourless brownies ARE delicious indeed! (I made them twice this week)

Janice said...

Amazing post! :)

Anne L. said...

Please keep writing. Winter has just passed over here and I enjoy wrapping myself under the blanket and munching on your lovely photos and blog posts. :)

Maria @ Scandi Foodie said...

Love the story and the photos!

Anonymous said...

Oishiso! I may have to try some of the recipes just because everything looks SO delicious.

Anonymous said...

A gorgeous litany of photos and fruit to end summer with. I can't wait to try some of these ideas (particularly the fruit liqueurs - yum!)

Katie said...

Gorgeous post! I can't decide which of your dishes to make first!

I agree with you 100% about your general dislike of high temperatures and humidity. Autums is my favourite season by far - the weather is so much more enjoyable.

I would also like to pass this award onto you: The Versatile Blogger Award. To find out more about it, please visit

Kitchen Vignettes said...

Ooooh, this post made me so happy, and hungry. I just discovered your blog, it's so beautiful, I will be coming back again and again! I absolutely love apricots and berries, and all summery fruits and I'm a HUGE cobbler fan, apricot and blackberry sound lovely together!

Alessandra said...

Everything is so beautiful and peaceful..

christina said...

I was just looking through an old donna hay magazine, and made some nectarine cakes. They were yummy!

A beautiful post, I loved every bit of it. Stunning photos.

Maureen said...

My goodness what a fantastic post and the photos made me drool all over myself. I'm so hungry now I can't stand it!

Culinary School: Three Semesters of Life, Learning, and Loss of Blood said...

Amazing pictures. When I was a culinary school student (I wrote about it here, if you're interested: "Culinary School: Three Semesters of Life, Learning, and Loss of Blood," on Amazon Kindle - I became fascinated with plating and with these beautiful dishes (especially those sweet rustic tarts), these almost plate themselves.

The Frosting on the Cake said...

your photographs are beautiful!

Scott said...

Summer in the mountains is definitely the key to maintaining one's sanity. (Not that I've maintained it, but I try, and you've succeeded admirably at it.)

Unknown said...

I think you might be interested in this: liquor based on stone fruit, especially a liquor based on appricots, can be produced by simply letting the stones in the alcohol, rathen than the flesh.

We also prefer to sieve any bits out.

Romy Ash said...

Oh to be sitting by the green, green forest.

annabanana said...

Beautiful photos! Lovely food! My mouth is watering! xx

chika said...

hi all - thanks for your comments and kind messages as always!

MM - ooh i can't wait to try the flourless version myself!

Anne L. - hope it's getting nice and warm soon!

Katie - thanks!

Scott-y-o - yeah it does help being deep in the mountains. i feel human and alive! are you back here soon?

RaspK - thanks, I think I've read about it somewhere, though never tried. perhaps next year...

féenoménale said...

I like very much your first photos. Thanks !

Miss cuisine said...

Wonderful post, are you ready to exchange recipe with other blogs ?
I will be delighted if you register on
and share on of your recipe with another blogger.

Miss Cuisine

kewpielovesyou said...

am just going thru your posts...just wanted to say how you have taken me away from my desk to another world... great pictures, great writing... it makes me yearn to visit japan again, ASAP! once our little one can walk and has teeth, i'm so so so going to take him to japan with my wife.

pls keep writing and keep taking these really beautiful pictures.