Eek of the Week – and a recipe for Prunes in Armagnac.
I love the deep smoky sweetness of prunes – less cloying than dates, more rounded than apricots - and am a sucker for things like devils on horseback (prunes wrapped in bacon), spiced roast duck legs with prunes, and prunes soaked in Armagnac, one of the world’s best instant desserts, especially over ginger ice cream.
But most of the time I snack on them plain, which presumably makes me the target market for
Plastic canisters filled with individually packaged prunes, each prune in its own private wrapper. What a brilliant idea! Why carry snack prunes in a dedicated plastic sandwich bag, using it over and over, when instead you could be making a big contribution to your local landfill? As a bonus, you get to pay almost twice as much for exactly the same prunes.
That’s hard to believe, but having been stewing about this for some time I checked again yesterday and sure enough: Bulk conventional pitted prunes from Adam’s in Poughkeepsie, NY – $3.50/lb. Individually wrapped “Ones” from the Stop and Shop roughly 1.5 miles away – $ 2.99 per container, aka $ 6.83/lb.
Ok. The recipe for PRUNES IN ARMAGNAC, a duo invented in Southwest France, famous for both pruneaux d’Agen and the ardent spirit that could be described as Cognac with balls.There are only 3 main ingredients, see notes at the end for more about each.
For 3 pints:
1 tablespoon Lapsang souchong, chamomile or linden tea
2 lbs prunes with pits, or 1 ¾ lbs pitted prunes
¾ cup sugar
3 wide-mouth pint canning jars and lids ( the plastic ones are ideal, regular lids will do), sterilized with boiling water
about half a bottle of Armagnac
1. Put the tea in a bowl or big teapot, pour in 3 cups of boiling water and let steep for 4 minutes. Put the prunes in a non-reactive bowl and strain the tea over them. Cover and let plump for 8 – 10 hours.
2. Drain the prunes and spread them out on a tea towel to dry a bit. Put the sugar and ½ cup water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then stop stirring and let the syrup come to a fast simmer. Keep cooking, unstirred, for another minute or so. Let it cool.
3. Divide the prunes between the jars. Pour a third of the syrup (roughly ¼ cup) in each. Add enough Armagnac to completely cover the prunes, removing a prune or two if necessary. Put on the lids. Gently tip the jars back and forth to mix the syrup and spirit.
4. Let age in a cool dark place for at least 2 weeks before using. The prunes continue to improve with time and will keep indefinitely if refrigerated.
To serve: A few prunes in a sherry glass with a substantial slug of the liquid is a good place to start. Use a champagne coupe and add a splash of heavy cream or a dollop of ricotta to make it more desserty or pit the prunes and pour them with their liquid over ice cream or brioche French toast. Pitted and halved, the prunes are a nifty garnish for pumpkin pie or pear tart. Pitted and pureed with a bit of the liquid, they make a good filling for baked apples. To make a sweetmeat to be reckoned with ( Christmas is coming), drain and pat dry, stuff with ground walnuts bound with honey and dip into bittersweet chocolate, coating roughly half of each prune.
The Tea: Softening the prunes in weak tea to start is traditional. Using Lapsang Souchong is not. Linden and chamomile are the standards and are certainly more polite to delicate fruit aromas. But one of the great things about prunes is that they can hold their own under almost any circumstance, and we like the way the smoky tea accentuates the Armagnac.
The Prunes: You can buy imported French pruneaux d’Agen, named for the Garonne river port of Agen, an early distribution hub, but there isn’t much point to it. The same plum variety ( Ente ) has been the standard in California since the mid 19th century and at this point growers there are very good at it. Specialty orchards elsewhere sometimes offer great prunes as well.
Organic fruit usually tastes better but often is dry enough to profit from longer initial soaking. Prunes without preservatives keep most reliably at the definitional moisture content of 21 – 23 percent, which is pretty chewy. Packers who use preservatives like potassium sorbate can rehydrate the finished prunes to a squishier, more toothsome 30 – 35 percent without risking spoilage.
Prunes with pits make a prettier presentation and are marginally more flavorful, but pitted ones absorb more syrup and tend to be more velvety. The choice is up to you.
The Armagnac: It’s risking outraged responses to say Armagnac is to Cognac as a peaty single malt Scotch is to a sophisticated blend, but that’s about as close as I can get. Descriptions from people who drink a lot more of it often include the words earthy, nutty, velvety and fiery.
Like Cognac, Armagnac is available in many degrees of splendor, from many makers, at many price points. As usual, el cheapo – insofar as there IS el cheapo – isn’t as good, even for soaking tea infused prunes. But midgrade is perfectly fine and the very best would be wasted. If you buy at a well-stocked store with knowledgeable help, it’s likely they can steer you to a reasonable choice.