Now that the weather is turning autumnal, it's time to celebrate food that's a little more hearty. So as we say goodbye to soft summer fruit, one replacement is the prune. This useful little fruit lends its soft jammy texture and intense flavour to all manner of dishes – both sweet and savoury (such as tagines).
I like to use the prunes from the Agen area of France, where this month the fruit is celebrated with a festival. They are widely available these days, and their lush softness puts those wizened old dried specimens from the past to shame.
For the prunes in tea, and prunes in sherry, keep the stones in the fruit as this helps them to retain their shape until you're ready to use them.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com
Prunes in tea
These barely sweetened prunes are delicious for breakfast, but also good with quail, roasted duck or pigeon. I usually use Earl Grey, which gives a slightly smoky taste, but herbal teas such as jasmine may also be used for a subtle and floral result.
Makes 1 large jar
500ml/1/2 pint water
1tbsp loose tea
500g/1lb prunes with their stones intact
3 strips of orange zest
Bring the water to the boil, pour over the loose tea leaves and allow to infuse for 10 minutes. Stir in the sugar and then leave to cool until just warm to the touch. Place the prunes into a jar and pour over the tea, then add the orange zest. Leave to cool completely, stirring or shaking once or twice. Seal and store in the refrigerator.
Prune and Armagnac tart
Serves 8 –10
250g/8oz ready made, all-butter pastry
300g/10oz good-quality prunes
30g/1oz unsalted butter
2 organic free-range eggs
120g/4oz caster sugar
1tbsp orange flower water
5tbsp double cream
3tbsp ground almonds
3tbsp Armagnac to drizzle
Icing sugar to dust
Crème fraîche to serve
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured work surface to a large round, about 3mm thick. Using your rolling pin, carefully lift the pastry and drape it over a 25cm flan tin, about 2.5cm deep with removable base. Press the pastry into the edges and side of the tin, and trim excess from the rim by rolling your pin straight across the top. Prick the base all over with a fork. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Stone the prunes and place them in a bowl. Pour on hot water to cover, leave to soak for 10 minutes to soften, and then drain. Melt the butter in a small pan and allow to cool slightly.
Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper and baking beans, and bake "blind" for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and paper, and return to the oven for five minutes, or until the pastry base is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Increase the oven setting to 190C/375F/Gas5.
In a large bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, orange flower water, cream, almonds, and a few drops of vanilla extract. Lightly whisk together until evenly blended, then stir in the melted butter.
Place the flan tin on a flat baking tray (to make it easier to take in and out of the oven). Scatter the prunes evenly over the pastry base, then ladle the whisked egg mixture over the top; carefully place on the middle shelf of the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 180C/350F/Gas4. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the custard filling is golden brown on the surface and still slightly wobbly in the centre.
Remove the flan from the oven and drizzle with the Armagnac. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a dusting of icing sugar and a dollop of crème fraîche.
Prunes with honey and cream
Prunes steeped in warm honey with a touch of Pedro Ximenez sherry, stirred through folds of gently whipped cream, make for a simple and elegant dessert. Make as I do – more than you need – for they are also lovely spooned over vanilla ice-cream, or paired with a robust sheep's- milk cheese. I have also been known to eat this on toast with lashings of unsalted butter, and I keep a jar in the fridge during the cooler months.
For the prunes in syrup
250ml/8 fl oz Pedro Ximenez sherry
240ml/71/2fl oz water
500g/1lb soft black prunes, stones intact
Place the honey and water in a small saucepan and cook over a gentle heat, stirring frequently until the honey has just melted. Remove from the stove. Place the prunes in a jar and pour over the warmed honey, adding the Pedro Ximenez at the same time. It is important that the prunes are completely covered by the liquid.
Cover with the lid and secure tightly. Give the bottle a couple of shakes, allow to cool to room temperature, and then set in the fridge. Left well covered in a cool place, they will keep almost indefinitely.
560ml/18fl oz double cream
2 tbsp icing sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Approx 500g/1lb of the syrupy prunes (see above)
Remove the stones from the prunes and slice roughly. Gently whip the cream until just soft and billowing. Fold in the icing sugar and vanilla extract, and then, just before serving, stir in the prunes, adding a tablespoon or two of their liquid. Delicious served with buttery, barely sweet biscuits such as langues de chat.