I have two prune plum trees in my orchard, planted with the idea that I would be able to recreate the heady, honeyed caramel-flavoured prunes that you find in the southwest of France, around Agen.
My quest to create such a prune transpired after a trip to a tourist-filled market many years ago, nowhere near Agen but in the little town of Forcalquier, in Provence. Taking in a vibrant display of olives, spices, pastes and dried fruits, I asked the vendor if we would mind if I took some photos of his stand. He nodded his agreement and, after my work was done, he beckoned me over, taking a prune from one of the gorgeous ceramic bowls on display and indicating that I should eat it. You might think that a prune is a prune, but not this prune. It was glossy and heavy, its rippled skin such a deep brown as to be almost black. As I bit into it, the flavour was at once honey and caramel, with a sticky, melting sweetness. It was luscious, decadent and so rich. The experience is locked in my mind ... everything about that moment: the late morning light of Provence as the heat rose and the sky burnt from sapphire blue to glaring white, the shadow from my enormous straw hat casting on to the ancient cobble under my feet, the scents of lavender and spice and orange rind, a waft of soulful music floating through the square from the accordion player standing in the corner. That prune is something I will never forget.
When ripe, the prune plum has an egg-like shape, with a dusky deep purple skin. Inside the flesh is amber-coloured, firm and not at all juicy. The fruit's sharp narrow pit sits loosely inside, making it easy to remove. I have always halved my prune plums, removed the pits and stacked the halves into my dehydrator to dry. The trouble is, my homemade prunes don't taste anything like the prunes you can buy. They're tough and quite leathery, with nothing of the brazen succulence of their French counterparts.
And that's because French prunes are left whole, with their pits imparting a slight hint of almond flavour to the flesh. The fruit is dried in kilns at 80C for around 24 hours (depending on the size of the fruit) and then, before they are sold, the prunes are partially rehydrated and plumped in steam. I'm never going to go to this effort but, when it comes to using prunes in my cooking, I am happy to make do with the store-bought prunes that come from America. American plums may not be quite as succulent or nuanced as the French ones, however, when it comes to cooking, they'll do the trick.
Arabic spiced poached fruit
Fresh pears and dried stone fruits poached in a heady, spiced syrup create a deluxe low-fat dessert. I like to add bottled peach or apricot halves to this in the winter (or add them fresh in the summer) but you can leave them out entirely if preferred. Make this a day or two before you plan to serve it - the longer the fruit sits in the syrup, the richer and more nuanced the flavours become.
Ready in 30 minutes, plus cooling
2 cups water
1¼ cups sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 whole cardamom pods
4 whole cloves
6-8 strips of lemon zest, cut with a vegetable peeler
8 dried apricots
12-16 dried pitted prunes
4 pears, peeled, stems intact
8 bottled or canned peach or apricot halves, drained (optional)
2 earl grey tea bags
Vanilla icecream or Greek-style yoghurt
Place water, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom, cloves and lemon zest in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add dried fruit and simmer 5 minutes.
Add fresh pears and drained peach or apricot halves, if using, to the syrup and cook on a very low simmer until pears are tender, about 10-15 minutes depending on fruit size.
Remove from heat, add tea bags and leave to steep for 5 minutes before removing. Allow fruit to cool in the syrup, then transfer to a container, cover and chill. Leave at least 4 hours before serving.
Serve chilled fruit with some of its syrup accompanied with yoghurt or icecream.
Fruit will keep in the syrup in a covered container for up to a week. Excess syrup can be stored in the fridge in a covered container for more than a week and used to cook more fruit.
Prune and whisky tart
You need to soak the prunes for this fabulous dessert at least 4 hours before you make the tart.
Ready in 1½ hours, plus soaking
PASTRY (or you can use 550g sweet shortcrust pastry)
2 cups plain flour
1 cup icing sugar
220g cold butter, cubed
1 tsp vanilla extract
Rind of ½ lemon, finely zested
1 tsp lemon juice
400g pitted prunes
¼ cup whisky
¼ cup caster sugar
2 cups cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
Start filling by soaking prunes in whisky for at least 4 hours or overnight. (If in a hurry, microwave prunes with whisky in a covered bowl on 30 per cent power for 10 minutes.)
To make pastry, blend flour and icing sugar in a food processor to combine then add butter and pulse to a fine crumb. Add egg, vanilla, lemon zest and juice and blend until mixture comes together in a soft ball.
Turn out on to a lightly floured board and form into a disc. Chill in fridge for 15 minutes to firm. Roll chilled dough on a sheet of baking paper to ½ cm thickness. Invert pastry into a 30cm flan tin to line base and sides. Peel off baking paper and press pastry firmly into tin, using extra pieces to patch any holes or cracks. Trim top to give a clean edge.
Chill in fridge while preparing filling.
For filling, break eggs into a mixing bowl, reserving a little egg white to brush over pastry later. Add sugar to eggs and whisk with cream and vanilla, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Drain soaking liquid from plumped-up prunes and add to egg and cream mixture.
Preheat oven to 180C. Cover pastry in flan tin with baking paper and weigh down with baking beans or rice. Bake for 20 minutes or until pastry is fully cooked. Remove from oven and lift off paper and beans. Brush pastry shell with reserved egg white. Arrange drained prunes in a single layer and pour custard mixture over the top.
Return to oven and reduce temperature to 160C. Bake for about 45 minutes until filling is fully set.
Cool to room temperature, dust with icing sugar and serve with whisky lemon cream (below).
Whisky lemon cream
Combine 1 cup chilled cream with the finely grated zest of ½ lemon, 2 Tbsp icing sugar and 2 Tbsp whisky. Whisk until cream just starts to thicken.
White chocolate mousse with Pedro Ximenez prunes
Unsweetened apple puree is the secret ingredient in this light-as-air chocolate mousse. You will need to make the macerated prunes at least 6 hours before you plan to use them, however, they keep for weeks in the fridge and are also divine with vanilla icecream.
Ready in 30 minutes, plus 4 hours chilling
2 cups unsweetened apple puree
250g white chocolate, broken into chunks
Rind of ½ orange, finely zested
1 tsp vanilla
2 egg whites
½ cup sugar
300ml cream to serve
Pedro Ximenez macerated prunes (see below)
Hazelnut praline (optional, see below)
Place apple puree in a pot and bring to a simmer. Add chocolate, remove from heat and stir until melted. Stir in orange zest and vanilla. Leave to cool.
In a clean bowl, whisk egg whites and sugar until sugar has fully dissolved and mixture has formed a thick meringue. Whip the cream to soft peaks and fold into the cooled apple chocolate mixture, then fold through the meringue until evenly combined.
Divide the mixture between 8 serving glasses. Chill until set, about 4 hours. Desserts will keep for 3 to 4 days covered in the fridge.
Serve topped with Pedro Ximenez-macerated prunes and their juices. Garnish with hazelnut praline if desired.
Pedro Ximenez-macerated prunes
1 cup Pedro Ximenez sherry
2 Tbsp honey
1 cinnamon quill
1 strip orange peel, cut with a vegetable peeler
24 pitted prunes
¼ cup fresh orange juice
½ cup water
Combine the sherry, honey, cinnamon and orange peel in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve honey. Add the prunes and bring to a simmer. Take off the heat and add orange juice and water.
Transfer to a jar, cover and chill until ready to serve. These need to sit for at least 6 hours. They will keep in the fridge for months. Makes 2 cups, enough for 8 servings.
Heat oven to 180C and roast ½ cup hazelnuts on a baking tray for 12 to 15 minutes until they smell aromatic and start to split. Place in a clean tea towel and rub to remove loose skins.
Line a baking tray or shallow heatproof dish with baking paper. Melt 1 cup sugar and 2 Tbsp water in a heavy pot over medium heat. Swirl the pot but do not stir, as this can make the mixture crystallise.
When syrup is a clear, deep-golden brown, pour in nuts then immediately tip mixture on to prepared tray. Tilt tray to spread nuts out in a single layer. When cool and set hard, place in a bag and smash into small pieces with a rolling pin. Stored in an airtight container, praline will keep for months.
Match this with
by Yvonne Lorkin
(Arabic spiced poached fruit)
Lindauer Classic Rosé Brut NV ($12-$16)
Straight out the gate, anyone turning their nose up at good old Lindizzle rosé needs to get over themselves and any tired, small-minded cultural cringe they're harbouring, because in my opinion, it's one of the most exceptional value-for-money sparkling rosés in all the land. Not only is it extremely affordable, it also boasts a trophy cabinet groaning under the weight of the medals its won over the years. That's right, it cleans up at the comps. Boasting Shrewsbury biscuit complexity alongside crisp, vivacious acidity, layers of soft cherry, berry and creamy almond characters, it's a stylish sip and just perfect with platefuls of poached fruit.
(Prune and whisky tart)
Thomson Two Tone Whisky ($79)
A snifter of this locally produced lovely will more than tidy up your total tart experience. Owners Rachael and Mat Thomson named this whisky "Two Tone" after the two types of casks used in its maturation. European oak, previously used to hold red wine, and American white oak, used exclusively for whisky, has injected a shortbread, milk chocolate, spiced raisin and coffee bean character to the nose and has given it a warm, velvety, pillowy heat on the finish. The infinity symbol on the bottle replaces an age statement and refers to the marriage of casks and it's just delicious.
(White chocolate mousse with Pedro Ximenez prunes)
Valdespino Real Tesoro Pedro Ximenez Viejo ($43)
Sipping Pedro Ximenez (pay-dro him-ay-neth) or "PX" if you're down with the kids, is like imbibing liquid Christmas cake and dark chocolate with a chaser of caramel coffee. The Valdespino family have been making sherry since 1430, so they're old. "Viejo" also means "old" and evidence of the Real Tesoro's extended maturation is how dark and glossy it looks, how intensely concentrated it tastes and how gum-numbingly nutty and rich it is on the finish. Glorious stuff.