Much like crushed dreams and nose hair, mediocre fruit is an unfortunate fact of life. Even in the prime of summertime, even when we buy it fresh off the farm, there is no guarantee against bruises, puckering, or unpalatable tartness. Fruit, I'm inclined to believe, is vindictive - at least that's an easy way to explain why it can go from beautiful to blighted within the span of a short trip home from the market.
It's inhumane to cook a perfect peach or strawberry, but it's well known that heat gives life to lackluster fruit. Too often, though, recipes involving cooked fruit (pies, cobblers, jams) mandate massive quantities, and we economical epicureans feel left out. While we may occasionally reap the harvest of a benevolent neighbor's garden, we rarely find ourselves with, say, two quarts of blueberries or fifteen plums. But what can we do with those three bruised peaches or that pint of just-okay raspberries?
Happily, I offer two delicious solutions, and neither requires more than two cups of homely fruit.
Solution 1: Preserves
I fear canning, with all its sterilization and strange equipment. Plus, most recipes for jams and jellies assume you have an entire kitchen full of fruit ready to be heated and stored indefinitely. I am pretty convinced that, unless your backyard is an orchard, canning is not an economical option. This recipe is perfect for those who prefer not to take fruit preservation seriously.
It should work with any fruit that might be used in jam, though you may want to experiment with sugar and water quantities (if the preserves seem to be too watery as they cook, you can definitely dump out some of the water). You can also experiment by adding different liqueurs and herbs. I made blackberry preserves with Chambord, a raspberry liqueur that I probably hadn't opened since college. I added two tablespoons for extra flavor. A tablespoon or so of red wine might be good, too, especially with stone fruit (peaches, plums, cherries). Below is the basic recipe; double, triple, or half it depending on the quantities you have. It has great conventional uses (e.g., toast, English muffins, PB&J's), but I recommend using it for scones, salad dressing, and PB&C's.
Recipe: Lonesome Preserves
1 lb (2 C) berries or chopped stone fruit
1/4 C sugar
1/4 C water
optional: 1 T fruity liqueur or red wine, 1 cinnamon stick, 1/2 t ground nutmeg or cinnamon, 1/4 t hot red pepper flakes, or 2 T fresh herbs (basil, rosemary, mint, etc.)
Stir together all the ingredients in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium, keeping at a simmer, stirring frequently, for about 1 hour or till mixture is thickened and reduced by about half. Transfer to a bowl and let cool. If the mixture has a lot of solids (e.g., pits, skin, etc.), pour it into a mesh strainer and use a spoon to push all the liquid out, discarding the solids. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Solution 2: Upside-Down Cake
An upside-down cake is the perfect thing when you have only a few pieces of mediocre fruit -- and when you feel like putting in the time to make an upside-down cake. It's not something many people would make on a whim, but it is great when you're trying to impress company. That is, if you don't make the same mistakes I did the first time I attempted this recipe, which comes from Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia, the book that came out of Julia Child's last PBS series. (To be precise, the original recipe is Nectarine Upside-Down Chiffon Cake, but you could also use peaches, apricots, plums, apples, pears. Maybe berries? Who knows, give it a whirl and find out!) I didn't bake the cake long enough and failed to butter the springform pan, so what came out the first time looked like this (after I dumped it into a baking dish and let it cook another 20 minutes):
It was bread pudding, not an upside-down cake. Still tasted great, but not my original intent, which was this:
Got it right on the second try -- typical behavioral pattern for this clumsy baker. This upside-down cake is better than any I've ever had, thanks to a winning combination of fluffy texture, almond streusel, and lots of lemon flavor. The baked fruit is, forgive me, just the icing on the cake, so if your fruit looks good enough to eat -- and thus too good to cook -- feel free to go fruitless.
Recipe: Nectarine (or whatever you want) Upside-Down Chiffon Cake
Adapted from Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan.
1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into 4 chunks
1 C packed brown sugar
2-3 nectarines, peaches, pears, or apples; or 3-4 plums or apricots, and sliced into eighths
1/4 C almonds (can also use pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc.)
1/3 C flour
1/4 C packed brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon or nutmeg
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 stick cold unsalted butter
1/2 C quick cooking (not instant) oats
Chiffon Cake Ingredients:
1.5 C sugar
1 C flour
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
4 large eggs, separated
1/2 C vegetable oil
1/2 C fresh lemon juice (from 3 small or 2 large lemons)
2 large egg whites
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
To make the topping, melt the butter in a greased 10" springform pan over medium heat (it's okay to put a springform pan on direct heat). Once the butter is thoroughly melted, remove from heat and sprinkle in the brown sugar slowly and evenly. Press the sugar onto the bottom of the pan so it provides a nice even coating. Then arrange the fruit on top of the butter/sugar layer in an artful circle (or not artful, whatever your style). Wrap the outside of the pan in aluminum foil to keep the butter from dripping. Set aside.
To make the streusel, scatter the almonds on a baking sheet and bake for 7 minutes. Remove from oven and place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor (reserve the baking sheet for later). Once the almonds are cooled, add the remaining streusel ingredients and pulse till you get a consistency of coarse crumbs. Set aside.
To make the cake, sift together 1 cup of the sugar with the flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Add the salt. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, oil, and lemon juice. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the egg and oil mixture, whisking all the while. Set aside. Beat all 6 egg whites in a large bowl with an electric mixer with a whisk attachment: start at a low speed and beat the whites until they are foamy and form soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat in the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar until whites are thick and shiny and form soft peaks. Fold about 1/3 of the whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it, then fold in the rest till everything is just blended.
Scrape about half the batter into the springform pan, then pour the streusel mixture over it. Scrape the remaining half of the batter in, and set the pan on the baking sheet. Bake for an hour or until the cake is browned and a tester comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before inverting onto a platter.