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Apricots — In the Morning (Part 1)

Whenever I bite down on a baked good bursting with orange flecks of sweet-tart, chewy dried apricots, I can’t help but think of family road trips.

It makes me think of a time, ensconced in the back seat of my parents’ car, when I’d get all giddy as we pulled into the parking lot of the original Nut Tree in Vacaville. It was the perfect spot to take a break on trips to Sacramento to visit family friends or to Lake Tahoe, where my family used to rent a cabin in the summer. You could fill up on lunch, beverages, or even take a mini train ride. What it meant most to me, though, was getting my hands on a loaf of apricot nut bread.

You’d find the tea cake loaves stacked on a counter, wrapped in paper and plastic, and tied with a fuzzy string of orange yarn the same color as the apricots. There was a date nut bread, and a blueberry one, too. But my family’s favorite was always the apricot.

We’d buy a loaf — or two — and carry it home, where we’d enjoy a slice for breakfast, dessert, or an anytime snack. It was tender, moist, crunchy with nuts, and bursting with tanginess here and there from the pieces of stone fruit. It’s remains my first — and fondest — memory of dried apricots.

Back then, a car trip was something special, as plane tickets for a working-class family of five were a stretch. I guess that’s why dried apricots inexplicably make me think not only of family, but of adventures and travel, sort of like my own edible Eurail pass.

The Nut Tree closed long ago. Although there’s now a Nut Tree Theme Park, I’ve never stopped at it. And I doubt the nut bread is still part of the repertoire.

You could say that “Apricot Flaky Scones” from Flo Braker’s “Baking for All Occasions” (Chronicle Books) cookbook are not at all like a Nut Tree nut bread. They aren’t, except for the fact that they do have jewels of dried apricot pieces throughout a crispy exterior and a fluffy, buttery interior. They also have nuts — in this case, pistachios. Like my nut bread of yore, the scones also are not overly sweet, making them a nice way to start the day without an over-bearing load of sugar.

Braker gives precise directions for folding the dough into thirds like a business letter, so that the scones end up slightly puffed and layered inside. And they do. She says to cut them into thin, small wedges to create 14 scones. I like my scones a little wider, so I cut the dough into a dozen instead.

No, these Apricot Flaky Scones don’t resemble a Nut Tree apricot loaf by any means. But one bite of a just-baked scone still warm from the oven is enough to transport me back on the road again.

Apricot Flaky Scones

(makes 12-14 scones)

For scones:

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

6 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons moist dried apricots, finely diced to yield 3/4 cup

1/2 cup unsalted, shelled pistachio nuts, coarsely chopped (optional)

2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest

1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For glaze:

2 tablespoons well-shaken buttermilk

3 tablespoons turbinado or other raw sugar

Before baking: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.

To make scones: In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda and whisk to blend. Scatter butter pieces over the flour mixture. With a pastry blender, cut in the butter just until the majority of the butter chunks range in size from peas to coarse crumbs. Stir in the apricots and nuts, if using.

Stir orange zest into buttermilk, and drizzle half of the buttermilk evenly over the surface of the flour mixture. Toss lightly with a fork. Then add remaining buttermilk and toss until mixture comes together in a shaggy mass. If any areas remain dry, gradually add more buttermilk, 1 to 2 teaspoons at a time, tossing lightly to distribute the buttermilk. With lightly floured hands, transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, shape into a rough, semi-cohesive mass, and knead gently about three times.

On the lightly floured surface, roll out dough into a 12 by 5-inch rectangle. Fold dough into thirds like a business letter; working from a short end, lift bottom one-third of the rectangle up over the center and then fold top third down to cover. This folding creates layers of dough and fat, so the scones will puff up slightly as they bake and will have a flaky texture. Roll out the dough again into a 14 by 5 1/2 by 3/4-inch rectangle. Transfer it to  a baking sheet, place a piece of plastic wrap on top, and refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes, to rest and to partially chill the dough.

Carefully transfer the chilled dough to a cutting board. Cut small wedges with a sharp knife. You’ll have 11 to 13 of them, depending upon how large you cut them. Place wedges, about 1 1/2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. (Depending upon the size of your baking sheet, you might need to use two pans.)  Gently press the 2 end pieces from the rectangle together to form a wedge, and add it to the others on the baking sheet.

To glaze scones: Brush tops of scones with buttermilk and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake scones until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer scones to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature the same day they are baked.

From “Baking for All Occasions”

Tomorrow: Apricots — In the Evening (Part 2)