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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Pruneaux à l'Armagnac: Prunes in Armagnac

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In Gascony, you're not invited in for coffee. You are invited for pruneaux. Not just simple prunes, mind you. The prunes they serve in Gascony after dinner - or as a side to a dishy conversation - are pruneaux à l'Armagnac, prunes soaked in Armagnac. Sweet, potent, delicious, and certainly not the stuff your grandma takes to stay regular. Unless your grandma is Tony Bourdain in drag.

I've been pining over the prunes soaked in Armagnac since I came back from Gascony. One lucky day, I came upon a bag of prunes in my cupboard, Pruneaux d'Agen demi-sec that I bought on a visit to Kate's Camont earlier this year. I had nearly forgotten about it. Now I can have my own pruneaux at home.

The first obstacle between me and my pruneaux is finding a bottle of Armagnac. It's not as easy as you think. If the Armagnac is too old or refined, it would be a crime to muck with it. While crappy Armagnac just isn't worth drinking, prunes or sans prunes.

I ended up with a bottle of Château de Pellehaut Reserve Armagnac from Ténareze. I knew nothing about this producer, but I used a little trick my friend Claude taught me years ago. I turned the bottle to see the importer: when in doubt, trust good importers, so said Claude. (And so did Eric Asimov in the NYT a while back too if I remember correctly, but I can't seem to find that article in the Times database.) In this case, the importer is Charles Neal, who wrote the definitive book on Armagnac called - what else - Armagnac.

The next obstacle is to find a recipe. Kate told me that I couldn't simply add dried prunes into armagnac, as the alcohol will cause the skin to seize up and become leathery. The prunes must go through some sort of cooking, either steaming or steeping in something non-alcoholic before being added to the armagnac. Then I stumbled upon this recipe, which looks pretty good. So I decided to give it a try. The only thing I changed was the amount of Armagnac. The recipe asked for 2/3 bottle (50cl). But I thought, heck, what's the harm in tipping the entire bottle in, and so I did. Didn't hurt it one bit. Of course.

So, here's my adapted recipe. Enjoy.

Pruneaux à l'Armagnac: prune in Armagnac

500g dried prune, pruneaux demi-sec
200g (1 cup) sugar
1/4l (1 cup) water
1 lemon
1 pod of vanilla
1 bottle of good Armagnac

In a small sauce pan, add the sugar and water and heat until boiling. Meanwhile, use a vegetable peeler to peel strips of skin from the lemon, add them to the pot. Slice the vanilla bean in half, and drop them into the pot.

When the pot comes to a boil, let it continue boiling for two minutes. Then, put the prunes in a medium bowl and pour the boiling liquid over it. Let the ingredients steep for 12 hours.

After 12 hours, remove the lemon peel and vanilla pod. Spoon the prunes into a large mason jar. Pour the Armagnac into the remaining liquid in the bowl, mix well. Pour the content of the bowl through a sieve into the mason jar. Close the jar tightly and let stand for at least two weeks, or preferably one month, before use.

To serve.
I serve this as an after dinner surprise. Each guest gets a tiny glass with one prune and a good pour of the Armagnac the prunes have been soaking in. Give repeats only if they beg.

The prunes and the Armagnac in the jar make great additions to your desserts. A slice of simple butter pound cake is made super special with a prune and a generous douse of the Armagnac. A soft chocolate cake, or better yet, soufflé. Vanilla ice-cream will do too. I can go on, but I think I'll just leave you with your imagination. Have fun.


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