So, have you noticed the luscious, gloriously colored, palm-sized (or pop-in-your-mouth sized) inhabitants of the grocery and fruit stand bins lately? Local strawberries and cherries may be mostly gone, but that just means that high summer fruits are in full swing. With the scents and juicy flavors of peaches, nectarines and tart-skinned multicolored plums in full glory, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries picked from your favorite vine are setting off berry fireworks on everyone's tongues.
Jews of all persuasions, backgrounds and nationalities have gloried in summer fruits as they came into season in their areas, with the realization that the time to enjoy them would be brief, and the need to creatively preserve them was imminent. Ashkenazim would slice and dry peaches and plums while the sun was hot; Sephardim would dry the gorgeous mosaic colors of melons they grew in the Near and Middle East. Often these fruits would end up as simple compotes for a winter treat, made with sugar syrups or honey and any whimsical flavoring of the moment. But since we're in the middle of our fabulous fruit season, let's indulge and make this simple treat even more delicious by creating it with different selections of fresh summer fruits and berries, chilling and serving it now. We'll make them even more indulgent with cream, half and half or sour cream.
Summer Fruit Compote
2 lbs of fruit: peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, raspberries, blueberries, marionberries, loganberries, etc.
2-1/4 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
Wash the stone fruit and peel if desired (optional), then pit and slice it evenly just before you're going to use it. Float the berries briefly in cold water to get rid of any dirt or bugs, lift out gently to dry on a towel or paper towel.
Although compotes made simply with sugar or honey and fruit are truly lovely, you may get fun and delicious "personal effects" by adding 1/2 a vanilla bean (cut it lengthwise, scrape the seeds into the syrup then drop in the bean itself), a few drops of rose water or orange flower water, 1/2 a stick of cinnamon, a few slices of fresh gingerroot, one or two cloves (no more!), a sprig of fresh thyme, a slice of lemon or orange peel, a squeeze or two of lime juice, or one of your own favorite flavorings.
While cooking the fruits, add more sugar if desired after tasting the mixture, or add up to 3/4 cup light-flavored honey.
To make the compote, bring the sugar or honey syrup to a boil. Add the prepared fruits individually, starting with plums first, then peaches, apricots and nectarines and cook for about 10 minutes at a gentle boil. Reduce to a simmer, add any seasonings, cook for about a minute and taste for sweetness. Add more sugar if desired and stir to dissolve. Taste again and add the berries. Cook for 2 minutes, taste and adjust, then cook about 1 minute more until the berries are just soft and the flavor is to your liking.
Let sit for about 20 minutes to develop the flavors, then pour into a non-reactive container and chill.
Serve cold with about 2 tablespoons of cream, sour cream or half and half for each 1-1/4 cup serving.
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If you have eaten all the fruit out of your compote and have lots of juice left, rejoice! Now you can make kissel, a traditional Russian Jewish dessert made with summer fruit juices. In Russian, local Jews would pick wild berries and make juices from them, either to refresh visitors in the summer or to can and save for the winter months when fruit was nearly non-existent. Kissel was a simple way to enjoy the berries, summer or winter.
1 quart unsweetened berry juice (recipe follows), or use good store-bought juice
1 to 2 cups sugar
7-1/2 Tbs. cornstarch
Sweeten the berry juice to taste with the sugar.
Mix the cornstarch with 1/2 cup of the juice, set aside.
Bring the juice to a rolling boil. Stir the cornstarch to recombine, then slowly whisk it in to the boiling juice.
When the juice starts to thicken, take it off the heat and immediately ladle carefully into 5 oz ramekins or custard cups. Chill well. Serve with sweetened or plain whipped cream.
Wash 4 cups of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries, elderberries (if you're out hiking) or any berries available.
Put them in a two-quart pot with water to cover and bring to a boil. Take the pot off the heat when the berries start rupturing or altering in appearance.
Put a strainer over a large bowl; line the strainer with an old, thin dishtowel or three layers of cheesecloth. Make sure the cloth hangs over the sides of the strainer by about six inches all around.
Pour the berries and juice into the strainer and press very gently on the berries with the back of a spoon.
Let drain overnight, then gather up the corners of the cloth and very gently squeeze the berries until the liquid straining out is no longer clear.
Measure the juice and add water to make the 4 cups needed for Kissel.
If you want, put the strained berries back into the pot, cover with water and repeat the operation; the second "juicing" won't be as clear and you can use the juice just to drink (sweetened if you like) or to make popsicles!
Makes 8 1/2-cup servings
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There are times when the combination of fresh fruit and a fragrant sweet dough can mean heaven for those privileged to partake. Thus the icon of cherry pie in American cooking. I think it's not a coincidence that many of our Ashkenazi grandmothers considered the ability to make superb fruit kuchens a simple necessity, thus favoring their Eastern European households with some of the great gifts of summer. From among the many scrumptious recipes in my early Jewish cookbooks, here is one of my favorites.
1/2 cup butter
2 cups flour
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup light brown or white sugar
6 ripe peaches, peeled, cut in half, pits removed
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 egg yolks or 2 whole eggs
1 cup heavy cream or sour cream
Mix together flour, baking powder, salt and 2 Tbs. sugar in a medium-sized bowl.
Cut in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse meal.
Press firmly into a 9x9" baking pan. Arrange the peach halves, round side up, on the surface of the crust mixture to cover.
Mix the remaining sugar with the cinnamon and sprinkle evenly over the peaches.
Bake 15 minutes at 400∞.
Beat the yolks (or eggs) well, then beat with the cream and pour the mixture over the top of the peaches.
Reduce the heat to 350∞ and bake for 35 minutes longer or until the custard is set and the kuchen is nicely browned.
Serves 6 to 12