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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.
Mmmmm, eat a peach day.
I’ve been “practicing” for this day, almost daily, for the last couple of weeks. Nothing fancy, usually, just cutting into their golden-rosy flesh to have slices straight off the pit in the morning. The best peach I’ve had in the last few weeks was a huge fuzzy fuzzy softball sized specimen I picked up at the Metchosin Farmer’s Market. We took it to the beach, and had it for a snack in the 33C degree heat. The combination of the super sweet juice and the salt on my hands from the ocean was divine. It brought me back to when I used to live in St. Lucia, and we’d bring ripe mangos down to the beach and eat them while sitting in the water at the edge of the surf. Like Thai cooks know, the salty and the sweet in harmony elevate the fruit to an entirely different level. Also eating them in the ocean allows you to get totally messy with impunity!
In case you like a little trivia, like I do, I thought I should mention:
- The peach tree (Prunus persica) is a species of Prunus native to China that bears an edible juicy fruit called a peach. The scientific name persica, along with the word “peach” itself and its cognates in many European languages, derives from an early European belief that peaches were native to Persia. The modern botanical consensus is that they originate in China, and were introduced to Persia and the Mediterranean region along the Silk Road before Christian times.
- Though fuzzy peaches and nectarines are regarded commercially as different fruits, with nectarines often erroneously believed to be a crossbreed between peaches and plums, or a “peach with a plum skin”, they belong to the same species as peaches. Several genetic studies have concluded in fact that nectarines are created due to a recessive gene, whereas a fuzzy peach skin is dominant.
- In China, the peach was said to be consumed by the immortals due to its mystic virtue of conferring longevity on all who ate them. The divinity Yu Huang, also called the Jade Emperor, and his mother Xi Wangmu, also known as Queen Mother of the West, ensured the gods’ everlasting existence by feeding them the peaches of immortality. The immortals residing in the palace of Xi Wangmu were said to celebrate an extravagant banquet called the Pantao Hui or “The Feast of Peaches”. The immortals waited six thousand years before gathering for this magnificent feast; the peach tree put forth leaves once every thousand years and it required another three thousand years for the fruit to ripen.
My plan for National Eat a Peach Day was to bake a cobbler. But much to my surprise, I’ve been stymied by the fact my local grocery store only had unripe peaches!! (yes, Thrifty Foods, I’m looking at you.) It’s the middle of August, I was not expecting that. So I bought a bag of unripe peaches, and have placed them on my counter in a paper bag, and I’m hoping they take take that last critical critical step in their life cycle really soon. My plan for this cobbler is to go light on the sugar, and have this around the house more as a breakfast food, than as a desert. Basically it’s stewed fruit and a little bit of bread, no?
Summer Cobbler via EATMagazine:
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
juice and zest from 1/2 lemon
3/4 tsp. ground cardamom [I love cardamon and fruit, especially peaches!!]
6 cups assorted summer fruit, pitted and sliced
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cups sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp. milk
1 Tbsp. Demerara sugar
Preheat oven to 375°F.
In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, lemon zest and juice and cardamom. Toss fruit with sugar mixture until well coated. Transfer fruit mixture to 8×8-inch baking dish.
To prepare the topping, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Cut butter into flour mixture until mixture is crumbly. Add buttermilk and stir with fork until dough comes together. Form a ball and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Knead dough until smooth. Pat dough into a large oval, roughly 1/2-inch thick. Cut out rounds of dough using 3-inch circular cookie cutter. Repeat with scraps until all dough has been used. Arrange rounds over fruit mixture.
Brush dough lightly with milk and sprinkle demerara sugar on top. Bake 40-45 minutes. Serve with cream.
Makes 6 generous servings.
Let me put in a little plug here for EAT Magazine. If you’re in BC, and particularly Victoria or Vancouver, I would recommend you pick up this little (free!) magazine when you find it at your local cheese shop or wine store. While I’m a little suspicious of the restaurant reviews as they are unfailingly positive, it’s packed full of good information about what is seasonal, what foodie events are on, and always has a few good recipes to try. You can also read each issue online, though, I find this isn’t as satisfying as decamping to your favorite coffee shop with the latest copy.
ps – will post a picture of the finished product in a couple of days when the peaches have finally ripened.
Yet again this American Food Holidays list astounds me with the sheer illogical timing of things. Peach Cobbler Day? In mid-April? Wtf? Peach cobbler is a SUMMER dessert. It is sitting on porch swings on covered porches and hot, humid, sticky days redolent with the heavy, sweet scent of flowers and dry grass, it is the sound of dragonflies skimming across the reeds and the slightly muddy yet fresh smell of your hair after you’ve been for a dip in the pond. It is Huckleberry Finn, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, Clara, Calpurnia, Celie (why do they all of a sudden all have “C” names) and every other hero and heroine of the Deep South. And none of that happens on April-freakin-THIRTEENTH!!!!
I don’t get it.
I do, however, get cobbler. It is one of my favorite “I-don’t-really-have-a-sweet-tooth” desserts because it’s basically just fruit with a very slightly sweetened biscuit dough baked on top. It is also a most excellent conduit for whipped cream – and everyone must know by now how I feel about that. I found this great article in the Washington Post about cobbler, wherein Kim O’Donnell, the most excellent author, quotes from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America, Volume 2 (I really have to get my hands on this mighty tome):
“Without the resources of brick ovens…colonial cooks often made cobblers — also called slumps or grunts — and their cousins, pandowdies, in pots over an open fire … In these types of pies, a filling made of fruit, meat or vegetable goes into a pot first; then a skin of dough is placed over the filling, followed by the pot’s lid. As cobblers cook, the filling stews and creates its own sauce and gravy, while the pastry puffs up and dries.”
If you do it right, the pastry on top actually sucks up some of the juice from the filling below and gets slightly doughy – just enough to have the texture of a biscuit taken fresh out of the oven and smothered in butter. If you do it wrong, the pastry will be rock hard and crumbly and take about 10 glasses of milk to wash down your throat.
I usually make the recipe from the Silver Palate Cookbook, but seeing as how I don’t have any fresh peaches handy (duhhhhhhhh), there was not a lot of point in following it religiously (like I ever do) since the whole basis of their recipe is fresh peaches baked in sugary/lemony goodness. So this is what I did (loosely based on the Silver Palate recipe, except for the pastry part which is almost the same and which I highly recommend, and taken completely without permission):
1. Preheat oven to 400º.
2. Take 3 cans of peach halves canned in fruit juice (not syrup – yech!). Drain. Arrange peaches in 10″ deep dish pie plate or other comparable baking dish. Sprinkle 1 tbsp. sugar, 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, 1 tsp lemon zest and 1 tsp almond or brandy extract over them. Stick in oven while you prep the topping, or for about 10 minutes.
3. In mixing bowl of medium-ish size, sift (or toss with fork since you don’t have a sifter) 1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tbsp. baking powder, 1 tbsp. sugar. Cut in 1/3 c. vegetable shortening until mixture has the texture of oatmeal. Realize you have some lemon zest left over so toss it in for good measure.
4. Lightly beat an egg. Mix it with 1/4 milk (preferably whole milk, not skim). Using a fork, gently mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined.
5. Pull the peaches from the oven. Drop the dough overtop in large spoonfuls trying to spread evenly(ish). Sprinkle another 1 -2 tbsp of sugar overtop and stick back in the oven for anywhere from 15 – 30 minutes. I left mine in for 30 ’cause I kept waiting for the sugar to melt like it does on a crème brulée, but it didn’t. Whatever you do, just pull it before you burn the biscuit topping. It should be nice and golden like mine was (and if only I had my stupid camera cord, I would show you – it’s coming – I promise!).
Now, I know I said peach cobbler is a brilliant conduit for whipped cream, and it is, but since I didn’t buy any because I am trying, trying to prevent my arse from getting any wider than it already has over the course of this blogging adventure, but mostly also ’cause I forgot, I whipped up my favorite summer fruit sauce instead:
1. Combine in a bowl: 1/2 c. plain yogourt, 1 – 2 tsp. honey (the runny kind), a pinch of nutmeg, 2 pinches of cinnamon. Whip furiously with a fork until all ingredients blended (seriously – you have to be fierce so that the honey doesn’t just lump up).
2. Pour overtop of fresh fruit, or cobbler as the case may be.
p.s. I promise, promise, promise I will have all the missing pictures up by the weekend!!!!