Every year just before his birthday in June, my dad eagerly awaits the arrival of apricots. When the velvet-skinned, round fruits finally appear in markets, he comes home proudly holding a full bag, ready to make his favorite Czech dumplings. My father was born in Prague, and these sweet dumplings were a treat he looked forward to each spring.
Apricots take their name from the Latin praecocia, meaning precocious or early ripening, and they are ready to eat before their larger relatives, the summertime peaches and plums. The apricot tree, Prunus armeniaca, was given its scientific name because the plant was believed to have originated in Armenia. However, its native land is currently up for debate. In Peru, Chile, and Argentina, the word for apricot is damasco, which might suggest that early Spanish settlers in South America associated the fruit with Damasus, Syria. Apricots do grow well in Mediterranean climates. Turkey and Iran are the world's leading apricot producers while California farmers cultivate more than 90 percent of the U.S. crop.
It is a great delight to find tree-ripened apricots in farmers' markets. Their season is brief, lasting from mid-May to mid-July, and the easily bruised fruits do not travel well. Much of the harvest is dried, canned, or made into jam. If you come across fresh, plump Patterson and Castlebrite varieties, buy them by the bucketful. Should you find heirloom Blenheims, super sweet with juicy flesh the color of a setting sun, fill your bag to the brim. Blenheims (sometimes called Royals or Royal Blenheims) are notoriously difficult to grow, especially outside of the Santa Clara Valley, where a combination of alluvial soil, foothill topography, and hot days with cold nights creates ideal growing conditions for these persnickety fruits. Even when weather patterns are nearly perfect, the trees bear frustratingly sporadic amounts -- many tons one year, and hardly any in the following year. Demanding as Blenheims are, their depth of flavor is unmatched by the other varieties. No matter what types of apricots are available to you, look for firm fruits that yield to gentle pressure. The good ones smell like honey. The most perfectly ripe ones also have a hint of liquor in their scent -- they are reminiscent of a strong Czech pilsner.
George's Apricot Dumplings
These traditional Czech dumplings can be made with a variety of fruit. Try making them with plums or peaches, if you like. My dad almost always makes them with apricots, but we've had success with strawberries, too.
1 pound potatoes
2¼ teaspoons Kosher salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
6 small apricots
6 teaspoons granulated sugar, plus ¼ cup for sprinkling
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Place the potatoes and 2 teaspoons salt in a large pot. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the potatoes by at least three inches. Boil the potatoes for 30 to 40 minutes, or until they yield easily when poked with a fork. Drain and let cool.
When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and discard the skins (or save them to fry in butter for a little snack). Smash the potato flesh with two forks and transfer it to a large bowl. (You can, of course, use a potato masher or a food mill, if you have one.) Add the flour, egg, and remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Using your hands or a wooden spoon, stir to combine until a soft dough forms. Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead it a few times, then roll it out to a ½-inch-thick rectangle. Cut the dough into twelve 5-by-5-inch squares.
Slice the apricots in half and remove their pits. Fill each apricot half with ½ teaspoon sugar, or a bit more if the fruit tastes too tart. Wrap each apricot half with one square of dough, pinching the edge to tightly seal the fruit inside the dough.
In a small bowl, combine remaining ¼ cup granulated sugar and the cinnamon. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Gently place the dumplings into the boiling water and cook them for about 5 minutes. You'll know the dumplings are done cooking when they float to the surface. Transfer the boiled dumplings to a warm plate, drizzle with hot melted butter, and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.