The first day of summer officially begins on June 21st. As the days lengthen, the sun rises higher and higher until it seems to stand still in the sky, which is what the word solstice means: the sun stands still. The name is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). This is considered the longest day of the year just as the winter solstice is the shortest. It's also called Midsummer because it is roughly the middle of the growing season throughout much of Europe. The day is still celebrated around the world - most notably in England at Stonehenge and Avebury, where thousands gather to welcome the sunrise on the Summer Solstice.
I always think of Druids when I think of Stonehenge and the solstice, but in 1984 Stonehenge was placed under the control of English Heritage. Its first act was to ban the Druids from the site. After years of lobbying the British government for admission to their beloved circle of megaliths once again, the Druids triumphantly returned to celebrate the summer solstice on June 21, 1998.
When I was a kid, we always considered Memorial Day to be the start of summer. We were allowed to go swimming for the first time, even though the water was still ice cold. We all donned bathing suits and did our best not to chicken out.
Another sure sign of summer is the arrival of apricots in the produce section. Here's the thing: I want to like them, I really do. But all too often apricots just don’t taste half as good as they look. It's easy to fall in love with a stack of golden orange fruit only to get one home and discover it has no flavor. Some describe their flavor as almost musky, with a faint tartness that lies somewhere between a peach and a plum.
If you're lucky enough to have a tree, apricots ripened and picked right off the tree are the best; so watch for them at farmer's markets or roadside stands. If not, consider the following when buying at the store:
- Apricots are not juicy fruits so don't equate softness for juiciness.
- Choose each apricot carefully, looking for plumpness, and lots of golden orange-red color. Avoid apricots that are green or pale yellow.
- Finally, smell them. An apricot that has flavor also has a sweet and ready fragrance.
I've been disappointed so many times; either they're too tart or they're mealy. I do keep trying though, ever hopeful and often I'm rewarded. But the main way I eat fresh apricots is in a tart or roasted with honey. Pastry Studio had a marvelous recipe last week, combining two of my favorites: roasted apricots AND a Sour Cream Ice cream. An old issue Gourmet also had a fabulous (and simple) Apricot Galette recipe made with puff pastry; I've made it often.
I'm going to make good use of the short apricot season this year, starting with an idea from a former neighbor who used to make a fabulous apricot sorbet. I lost her recipe long ago, but found a nearly identical one in Gourmet magazine years later and I make it every year right around summer solstice.
Any Druids out there?
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, June 2002
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup dried apricots, chopped
1-1/4 lb firm-ripe apricots (7 large)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
Preheat oven to 350°. Bring sugar, water, and dried apricots to a boil in a small saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let stand until apricots are softened, about 1 hour.
While dried apricots are standing, place pitted, halved fresh apricots in a small roasting pan, sprinkle with a little sugar and bake in the middle of your oven until soft. It took me about 25 to 30 minutes, but the recipe calls for 1 hour. I have found by that time, the juices have all seeped out into the roasting pan. so watch them carefully. Cool in pan.
Purée dried apricot mixture, roasted apricots, lemon juice, and almond extract in a blender until very smooth, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Force purée through a fine sieve into a bowl, pressing hard on solids and then discarding them. Chill purée, covered, until cold, at least 2 hours.
Freeze in ice cream maker, then transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden.
Purée can be chilled up to 8 hours. Sorbet keeps 1 week.
Photo credit: Stonehenge: National Geographic