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Peaches are the essence of summer. They are the sticky sweet syrup dripping down your arm when you bite into one at a roadside farm stand. They are canning jars full of bright, orange slices that you know will feel like a warm sunny day in December. But most of all, they are pies and crumbles and cobblers fresh from the oven on a hot summer night.
I don’t do a lot of baking but I can be counted on for some version of a peach pie every August. When my son was younger, he spent a couple of weeks at a hockey school in Penticton each summer, usually in August. We turned hockey camp into family vacation most years. Usually we camped but after a season of hurricane force winds we decided to stay in a great little Bed and Breakfast in nearby Summerland. This particular place, along with the regular B & B style service had a completely self-contained one-bedroom suite. It was perfect… a big barbecue out back on the deck overlooking the lake, and a fully equipped kitchen. I know most people don’t think about baking while they are on vacation, but it allowed us to make a pie with the peaches we bought that afternoon. A little peach salsa with the barbecued chicken for dinner, some sliced peaches on the pancakes at breakfast, and best of all, a big slice of fresh, hot peach pie for dessert. I don’t think I’ve ever had a pie so tasty or satisfying as that year in Summerland.
That’s not to say it was the best pie I’ve every made or the best pie I’ve ever had, it was just so unexpected. It was not something I thought I would be able to do while I was there, it was just a brilliant bit of serendipity when I opened the cupboard looking for a saucepan and found a pie plate. If we had come up earlier, during cherry season, baking a pie wouldn’t have entered my mind, but after driving past the farm stands from Keremeos to Penticton, smelling all those beautiful ripe peaches, there was little else I could think of. A pie plate in the cupboard was all I needed to fulfill the craving.
Peach pie is not rocket science. I know there are lots of variations on the classic, with basil, with nuts, with cinnamon, with ginger, with whatever, but I want to the taste the fruit and nothing else. Peaches in the peak of their season really don’t need embellishment. So my pie, or crumble or cobbler, or compote is nothing more than fruit, sugar, a bit of lemon zest, a pinch of salt and a bit of flour to thicken it all. My favourite pie crust is Martha Stewarts Pate Sucree. It is delicate, slightly sweet and oh so buttery… the perfect compliment to the sweet peaches.
Pate Sucrée (Sweet Pastry)
makes two 8-10 inch crusts
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 pound cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 4 tablespoons ice water
- Put the flour, sugar and butter in a bowl and cut together until the mixture resembles coarse meal. You will see small pieces of butter throughout the mixture. They will be of various sizes ranging from a grain for corneal to a grain of oatmeal, a few will be larger and that’s okay. To cut ingredients together, use two knives, drawing the knives across one another, or use the pastry blender that I’ve sent you.
- Slowly add the egg yolks and ice water, mixing/tossing together with a fork just until dough holds together. Test the dough by squeezing a small amount together. If it is crumbly add a bit more water. What you do after you add the eggs and water is what will make the crust either tender or tough. Do not work the dough anymore than you absolutely have to.
- Turn dough onto two large pieces of plastic wrap. Grasping the ends of the plastic wrap with your hands, press the dough into a flat circle disc. Wrap the dough in the plastic and chill for at least an hour. Resting the dough is important. It will roll out easier and be less elastic, which will make a better dough.
- The key to a tender flakey crust is to not handle the dough with your hands or to over work it. Pastry is flakey when the small pieces of butter melt in the layers of the crust and leave air spaces. Your hands will warm up the butter so there are fewer individual pieces of butter to create the air pockets. The same with over working the dough. The more homogenous the dough the less it will develop layers of crust and air.
- On a lightly floured board, roll dough into circle about 2 inches larger in diameter than the pie plate. Carefully fold the dough in half and place in pie plate. Trim dough so that it overhangs plate by 1/2 inch. Fold overhang underneath itself to create a double layer of dough our perimeter. Pinch with fingers to create a decorative border that stands above rim. Do not press it down over edge of plate.
- Fill the crust and bake.
Note: You can make the dough a day or two before and let it rest in the fridge.
It sounds complicated but it’s really very easy. The key is to not do too much. Bad pie crust is always because it’s been over worked.
But what I like best, even better than Martha’s pastry is a simple crumble. The oatmeal gives is a savouriness that you just can’t beat. And, it is fast, simple and essentially fool proof.
- 1 cup butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 ½ cups flour
- 1 ½ cups oatmeal (quick oats)
- 1 tsp baking soda
- Cut the butter, sugar, flour and baking soda together in a food processor. Turn into a bowl to mix in oatmeal to keep the oats whole.
- Squeeze into small lumps and spread over fruit mixture.
- This makes enough for a generously topped 9” x 13” baking pan.
I made crumble this year and hope to squeeze in a blackberry crumble before the season is over. I love it in all its simplicity. No embellishment required nor desired. You could have some ice cream with it if you wanted to… I guess.
Who knows how National Plum Pudding Day landed in February but in my humble opinion there is no good reason why it shouldn’t be a year-round treat. Sure, plum pudding is a quintessential symbol of Christmas decadence, but the ingredients are typical pantry items and the preparation is extraordinarily simple. I guess the biggest reason that plum pudding never appears outside the holidays is that it really should ripen for a few weeks to be enjoyed at its best. I understand that the “plan-ahead” aspect of plum pudding will permanently relegate it to Christmas, that one time of year when we can justify cooking now for future enjoyment. That said, I knew there was a Plum Pudding Blog on the horizon and I made two.
If you read the Fruitcake post in December you already know that I am surrounded by raisin-haters. I hadn’t bothered to make my own plum pudding for the same reason I hadn’t made fruitcake for so many years… because it always comes down to my father-in-law and me to eat it all. However, I was inspired this year and made both.
My first big challenge was to find an appropriate vessel in which to steam the pudding. I was shocked to realize that pudding basins are a little hard to find these days. I eventually found one but it was huge! I ended up using a pair of ceramic loaf pans that I use for terrines. They were the perfect size, if not the traditional shape.
The second challenge was to find a recipe. The options seemed endless… some with currants, some with dates, others with prunes, some with treacle, others with brown sugar, some with citron, others with candied orange and ginger… you get the idea. I knew what I wanted my pudding to taste like and the one that made the most sense to me was from the 1995 Martha Stewart Cookbook: Collected Recipes for Everyday (pg 418). Her recipe has both dark raisins and currants and is heavy on the orange notes, using both orange peel and candied kumquats. The recipe makes a 2-quart pudding, enough for 15 servings. I cut the recipe in half and cooked them in two half-quart pans. It was still too much for my father-in-law and me to polish off in one sitting but I was able to lick the bowl clean by New Years.
The third challenge was to leave the second pudding alone until now. It’s been pure torture to see it in the back of the fridge all this time. At last the day has arrived to peel open my last taste of Christmas until next winter.
Traditionally, plum pudding is set ablaze with a good dousing of rum or brandy and served with hard sauce. I am usually all over food with booze but I find that the hard sauce overpowers the pudding. I prefer mine with a little brandy spiked crème anglaise. It’s pretty close to the original but more subtle… like the difference between a framing hammer and a sledge hammer.
So here it is… a cold, rainy, mid-February night in Vancouver. After enduring a few hours in the cold to watch the Olympic torch relay come into Yaletown I poured a snifter of my best Armagnac and drizzled crème anglaise over a slice of steaming pudding. It’s so rich, so satisfying and so delicious….
All right, all right… I’m lying. It was neither raining nor cold… more of a pleasant spring evening. But the plum pudding was brilliant and the Armagnac so perfectly soothing that I think I’ll have to celebrate Christmas again in July.