Sweet cheeks

Author: Brigitte Hafner
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

The nectarine is one of the great pleasures of the Australian summer. Together with berries, melons and other stone fruit, they are the fragrance and flavour of the season. I've always loved the yellow nectarine, and the more elegant and refined white nectarine with its pink edging is gorgeous in desserts. Nectarines, a smooth-skinned variety of peach, are a highlight in January, because the sweetest and best-tasting fruit usually come at this later stage of their season. Like all stone fruit, they have the best flavour when they've been allowed to ripen fully on the tree, and some of the best nectarines I've bought have been from farmers' markets where the growers sell fruit they have just picked. Fully ripe nectarines have a beautiful perfume and are very delicate - eat them straight away or store them in the fridge. Fruit that isn't entirely ripe will benefit from a few days at room temperature to ripen further, but you should avoid buying anything really hard - the hope that truly unripe fruit will soften is usually in vain. Choose fruit that's fragrant and soft to touch, but not bruised.

So what do I do in summer with this beautiful fruit? I thought I'd keep it really simple this January and give you my top 10 ideas:

1 For something special, it's difficult to beat white nectarines and raspberries in moscato jelly. Make a syrup with moscato, a vanilla bean and orange zest and poach whole peeled nectarines till they're just soft. Remove them from the syrup, cool, then cut them into little cheeks. Mix the poaching liquid with gelatine and pour into crystal glasses with the nectarine cheeks and some raspberries. The two fruits go beautifully together, and the look is sublime. Serve the set jelly with organic cream lightly whipped with caster sugar, some vanilla bean seeds and a drizzle of Grand Marnier.

2 I like to use Damien Pignolet's pâte sucrée recipe to make a frangipane tart filled with baked yellow nectarines. The nectarines bring a perfect textural contrast to the soft almond filling and the sweetness isn't overwhelming.

3 When I feel like a light meal on a warm evening, I buy the very best acorn-fed jamón Ibérico and serve it with young Manchego, freshly roasted and salted almonds and slices of the most perfectly ripe white nectarines. Pair this with a rosado or a palo cortado sherry and prepare for bliss.

4 Nectarines baked in a simple almond tea cake - perhaps with some brown sugar and cinnamon streusel on top - makes a no-fuss delicious dessert. Try it warm from the oven with a nice oloroso sherry.

5 For the simplest of sweets, lay yellow nectarine halves in a baking tray and drizzle them with honey and the juice of an orange. Throw in a cinnamon quill and four cardamom pods and bake until everything's golden brown and the sauce is caramelised, then deglaze with a splash of Havana Club rum and a teaspoon of orange-blossom water. Serve with sweetened mascarpone.

6 Red meat on the barbie is an Aussie tradition, but for something lighter, wrap halved quail in pancetta, barbecue them, and serve them with a nectarine and rocket salad and some Yarra Valley marinated feta.

7 French crêpes are the ultimate decadent breakfast. On weekends I like to sauté slices of yellow nectarines in butter and Billington's muscovado sugar till they're soft and lightly browned. Finish them with lime juice, and serve them in crêpes.

8 I love millefeuille filled with poached white nectarines and crème pâtissière flavoured with amaretto for a special occasion, because it looks so pretty and tastes even better. Poach the nectarines in a simple syrup flavoured with vanilla. For the pastry layers, line a heavy baking tray with baking paper. Dust your work area liberally with icing sugar and lay out a sheet of puff pastry. Dust more icing sugar on top and roll the pastry slightly. Place on the tray, then cover with baking paper and another heavy baking tray. Bake pastry at 175C until it's golden brown. When cool, cut into rectangles, layer with the fruit and the crème, and enjoy.

9 A jam of white nectarines and Champagne is delicious with warmed brioche. For a kilo of nectarines, use 900gm of caster sugar, the juice of half a lemon and a cup of Champagne, prosecco or other sparkling wine.

10 Chutney is the perfect solution to the question of what to do with those very hard and unripe nectarines you often see in supermarkets. Caramelise a generous amount of brown sugar with some allspice, cardamom and mustard seeds. Deglaze with white vinegar and add diced nectarines and a little turmeric. Reduce the heat and cook for 10 minutes. It goes wonderfully with roast chicken or pork or, if you still have Christmas leftovers, in a sandwich with some leg ham and cheddar.

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