Oh, the benefits of getting a good soak

When dried fruit is united with just the right liquid, the transformation can be glorious


Alchemists have tried for centuries to transform base metals into gold - unsuccessfully, at least as far as we know. But it's a lovely concept: Take the common and uninspiring - lead, copper, prunes - and change it into something glorious.


Though dried fruit can be tasty right out of the box - the lunchbox anyway - it's even better with a little transformation. But you don't need medieval textbooks to do it; all you need is a well-stocked pantry or, even better, a good liquor cabinet. To transform dried fruit from an ordinary snack into something quite astonishing, all you need to do is to macerate it - soak it, that is, preferably in something interesting. The fruit, highly concentrated already, absorbs the liquid and effectively rejuvenates. The flavors of the liquid meld with those of the fruit, creating an entirely new component with a different texture and entirely different flavor profile than you started with.

You can macerate currants in bourbon, or soak apricots in tea. You can simmer dried figs in red wine and vanilla, or soak prunes in Armagnac.

What you use to macerate the fruit in depends on how you want the flavors to work: Different kinds of tea, wines, fruit juices, eaux de vie, liquors and liqueurs, even more exotic things like orange flower water or rosewater, all add different flavors to the fruit, as well as depth and complexity.

The fruit can be used in savory dishes, such as braises and pilafs, but where this method really shines is in desserts.

Bread pudding is a perfect example of this kind of tension. The thick whole fruit - apricots and prunes redolent of red wine and cinnamon - is the textural opposite of the baked country bread.

Lindsey Remolif Shere, pastry chef at Chez Panisse from its opening in 1971 to her retirement in 1998, also likes to mix fresh fruit into dried-fruit compotes. The principle is the same as with the bread pudding: a marriage of opposites.

And then there's prune and Armagnac ice cream. This is one of those dishes that you don't think twice about - until you realize that it's a classic. Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and Paula Wolfert all include it in their cookbooks. It's a favorite on the menus of California's Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Bouchon in Napa Valley.

The sophisticated precursor to rum raisin, this ice cream is another example of the attraction of opposites. But there's something about this dish that makes it exponentially more than the sum of its parts. Keller's version uses creme fraiche, adding a lovely twang that further counters the sweetness of the prunes. The Chez Panisse variation adds a heftier shot of Armagnac. The result is brilliant in the same way that cheese is brilliant with red wine; the Armagnac cuts through the creamy richness of the ice cream. Beats rum raisin any day.

Amy Scattergood wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times. Recipes can be found at baltimoresun.com/taste.

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