At this time of year, when the season of abundant citrus fruits has just passed and summer’s locally grown stone fruits seem months away, there are still a few treasures of the moment that lend themselves to being poached in tea – loquats and apricots, whose names alone conjure something of the exotic and evanescent. Fragrant and fleeting, these two are just beginning to make their way onto my local farmer’s market’s shelves, where anything new captures my eye and my imagination.
Delicate and perishable, these two pale yellow to orange marvels can be wonderful just eaten out of hand or combined in a simple fruit compote. But when bathed in slightly sweetened, brewed Chinese black tea (such as Yunnan) and accented with a bit of lemon zest, they can take on a complexity of flavor that is incomparable. So when you are looking for a simple dessert, this is it.
The most challenging part of the recipe is sourcing the best, most flavorful fruit. Look for loquats that have tiny brown spots on them and a bright yellowish color with a bit of orange blush, both indications of ripeness. Apricots should have a nice perfume and be meltingly tender (slightly less than squishy) – a sign of succulence and flavor. I always ask to taste before I buy. If you can find Blenheim apricots, you have hit the mother lode in the stone fruit world. Look no further.
Once you have sourced the produce, the rest is easily accomplished. Make sure that whatever premium whole-leaf Chinese black tea you use is fresh and aromatic. If it has no fragrance in the tin, it will add nothing to the dessert. Measure 2 grams of tea leaf for each 5 ounces of water. Triple that amount for 4 servings of the fruit. Sweeten only slightly (approximately 1/3 cup of sugar for the 15 ounces of water) and add thin shreds of lemon zest from one medium-sized lemon (only the yellow part, none of the bitter white pith under the skin). Bring the liquid to a boil, remove it from the heat, and allow the tea leaves to steep for up to 5 minutes, tasting every minute or so until you achieve a bright flavored, but not tannic, liquor. Sieve out the leaves and lemon zest and pour the sieved liquid into a saucepan. Bring the liquid to the simmering point and add the peeled and seeded fruit (the loquats peel easily when ripe; once peeled, cut in half and remove the hard brown seeds). Add the apricots, halved and pitted (I don’t bother to peel them unless the skin is excessively tough) and cook them until they have softened slightly. Be careful not to overcook the fruit. You want the fruit to retain its shape, remaining intact as much as possible. Don’t reduce the fruit to a mush. Remove from the heat and allow the fruit to stand in the liquid until cool. One extra step to concentrate flavors – move the fruits to serving bowls or dishes and then cook the liquid over a high heat until it becomes somewhat more viscous. Don’t let it burn. Allow it to cool and spoon the slightly thickened liquid over the fruits.
You may serve the fruits as is, at room temperature, or gild the lily a bit by spooning thick plain Greek yogurt, sweetened crème fraiche, or lightly whipped cream over them. If you’re patient, chill the fruits and the poaching liquid and serve cold, with or without dairy adornments. Perhaps a favorite plain cookie or a piece of shortbread would set things off beautifully.