Pistachios, Apricots, and the Tart They Made
The Arabic word for pistachio is fustuq halabee ( فستق حلبي) or Aleppo nut, and indeed Syrian cuisine puts this local crop to good use. The bright green nuts fill gorgeous coins of baklava, are sprinkled through rice pilafs and are eaten out-of-hand at nearly every stage of their growth. My boss's eight-year-old daughter, marveling at my ignorance, had to teach me how to eat a young pistachio, first peeling the thin soft red skins, then cracking the hard shells to reach the still-tender nut inside. Pistachios, native to the mountainous region of Iran, are not easy trees to grow. The trees can take up to 12 years to come to fruition, and peak harvests may not happen for twenty years.
In an effort to combat increasing desertification and improve the livelihoods of poor farmers, the Syrian government in collaboration with the UN, has undertaken a tree planting project over the past forty years. Focusing on high value crops such as pistachios and almonds, it has not been an easy road, it takes considerable investment on the part of the farmers to clear the fields and then tend the trees for the many years before they produce any financial return. However, using loans and food aid, the program has been remarkably successful, replanting tens of thousands of acres, empowering poor farmers, and inculding complimentary programs targetting women such as bee-keeping and nursery skills. Driving through Syria's greenbelt today (the area near the Mediterranean coast and Euphrates river), you'll pass mile after mile of tree farms, a startling green landscape at the edge of the desert.
Apricots topped with thickened yogurt and pistachios; young pistachios in the market.
Apricots also grow among those green fields and are another crop you'll find all over the Damascus market. The first time I saw them in the spring, I was captivated by these tiny sweet fruits, barely 2 inches in diameter and just ripe enough to split open with your fingers. As the season progresses the apricots grow larger, but it is those tiny baby ones I covet, and which arrive by huge cratefuls in the markets. Apricots bruise easily and don't travel well, which is probably why I grew up with the more hardy nectarines or local peaches. But apricots thrive in the Mediterranean, and in Syria they are turned into fabulous apricot jam, apricot syrup, dried and made into a type of fruit leather called qamr al-deen (literally 'moon of the religion'). Indeed, the word for apricot in Argentina and Chile is damasco, probably referring to the Damscene settlers who brought the fruit. In Arabic they're known as mishmish (مشمش).
When I set out to make a tart the other day, I had in mind the wonderful French frangipane tarts, frangipane being a mixture of ground nuts, butter, and egg that forms the filling of the tart. Traditional French tarts pair hazelnuts and pears, but I thought why not use those Syrian products, pistachios and apricots. You could easily make this subsitituting almonds for some of the pistachios, or canned fruit in place of fresh. My only mistake was to brush apricot jam over the top of the tart, I was supposed to brush it only over the fruit, but I covered the whole tart with the glaze, resulting in an unfortunate green+orange=brown result. Oops. To preserve the brilliant green of the tart, I suggest brushing a clear glaze of corn syrup over the tart to give it that glistening look. And no matter what language or provenance you use, the tart is delicious.
Apricot Pistachio Frangipane Tart
This tart has a stunningly colorful appearance and comes together easily in the food processor. Shelled blanched pistachios will have a vibrant green color, look for them in well-stocked groceries or Middle Eastern markets. If you can't find blanched pistachios, blanch them yourself by immersing the shelled nuts in boiling water for one minute, then rinse them under cold water and dry thoroughly.
baked tart crust for a 9" tart pan (see below)
1 1/2 cups (about 6 oz) shelled blanched pistachios
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp orange zest
4 tbl butter
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
1 tsp almond extract
2 tbl flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
4-6 very small apricots, halved
2 tbl corn syrup
Preheat the oven to 375 F, prepare the tart crust.
1. Grind the pistachios in a food processor with two tablespoons of the sugar until you have a fine meal (don't grind so much as to make nut butter though). You should have about 1 1/4 cups pistachio meal (if you have more than this, set it aside or discard it).
2. Add the remaining sugar and orange zest to the pistachio meal and pulse to combine. Slice the butter into small pieces and add to the processor with the nut mixture. Process until combined. Add the egg, yolk, and extract and pulse a few times just to combine. Sprinkle the flour, salt, and baking soda over the mixture and pulse a few times to combine. (If the mixture appears stiff or dry, you can add a bit more egg, if it appears too soupy or wet you can add a touch more flour.)
3. Pour the pistachio mixture into the tart shell. Arrange the apricots, cut side down, over the filling. Bake until the filling is puffed and beginning to brown on top, about 35-45 minutes. Cool on a rack.
4. Brush the corn syrup over the surface of the tart to give it that glistening look. Serve at room temperature.
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, cold and cut into small pieces
2-3 tablespoons ice water
1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour and salt; pulse to combine. Add butter, and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some larger pieces remaining, about 10 seconds. (To mix by hand, combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl, then cut in butter with a pastry blender.)
2. With machine running, add ice water through feed tube in a slow, steady stream, just until dough holds together without being wet or sticky. Do not process more than 30 seconds. Test by squeezing a small amount of dough together; if it is still too crumbly, add a bit more water, 1 tablespoon at a time.
3. Turn out dough onto a clean work surface. Shape into a flattened disk. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight, then roll out and press into tart pan and refrigerate.
4. To blind bake: Preheat the oven to 375 F. Prick the chilled tart dough all over with a fork. Bake the tart shell for 15-18 minutes, until just golden, pressing back any bubbles with a spatula.