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Summer fruit — the key to grand finales

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SAN FRANCISCO — For almost 20 years, making irresistible desserts has been pastry chef Mary Jo Thoresen's daily challenge. Fortunately, summer comes every year, bearing peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, cherries, melons and berries in fragrant profusion.

"It really does make (my job) easy," says Thoresen, co-owner of the Jojo in Oakland and a former pastry chef at Chez Panisse.

Armed with the impeccable summer fruit that she shops for daily, Thoresen can make the sorbets, fruit tarts, fruit jellies and compotes that she enjoys eating at the end of a meal. They're also great finales for Fourth of July barbecues — the seasonality and colors are perfect — as well as for other celebratory summer meals.

"In general, with fruit desserts, the least amount of fussing the better," Thoresen says. Some of her favorite summer desserts call for cooking the fruit just barely, or not at all, to preserve the fruit's flavor. Starting with juicy, aromatic, intensely flavored fruit is a must for these recipes where it has nothing to hide behind.

Here are some tips from Thoresen for buying and storing fruit for those perfect fruit desserts.

— Buy the ripest fruit possible. Fruit in its prime should smell sweet and true to its nature. If the produce manager allows, ask to taste the fruit before you buy. Also ask the produce manager to help you pick the best of the bin.

— Inspect fruit carefully. Be sure there are no bruised, withered or moldy spots. But resist the temptation to squeeze the fruit in the market. Turn baskets of berries over to be sure there is no mold on the bottom.

— Store fruit properly. Spread out fruit on a parchment-lined baking sheet, making sure there is space between each piece to allow air to circulate. Stoned fruit should be placed stem-end down on the parchment and left at room temperature until it yields to gentle pressure on the shoulders. Berries — don't wash them, don't cover them — should be refrigerated.

— Buy fruit later in the season. Early-season fruit generally isn't as full-flavored as late-season fruit. It also is more expensive.

— Don't be afraid to buy fruit in quantity when it is at its best. Freeze extra berries and turn other fruit into sweetened fruit purees — try the proportion of 1 quart of fruit puree to 1 cup of sugar, then freeze the puree.