This has been a great year for peaches. There are worse summer breakfasts than a ripe one eaten with a thin, crackle-crusted baguette and a spoonful of soft, white cheese. Ricotta, fresh and weeping, is a possibility, as is the snow-white caprini. If such young cheeses remain elusive, a spoonful of mascarpone will do. I break off a chunk of bread, spread it with the cheese, add a few grains of black pepper, then a thick slice of peach.
Around this time each summer it crosses my mind to make a peach pie. I rarely do. Those I have come across generally have a cloying quality that I suppose comes from putting a soft, sweet fruit under a soft, sweet crust. Unlike the plum, apple, gooseberry or rhubarb, the peach lacks any real acidity to contrast the sugary, buttery elements in the crust.
But I do like the idea of peach pie. Its name – whisper the words – carries a seductiveness that appeals on a hot, still afternoon when there is little else to do. This is a dessert whose name alone wins you over by its unapologetic softness and deep scent of summer. The idea that you might have enough of the ripe fruit to put under a crust must mean that we have reached high summer. The fruits, and their sisters the apricot and the nectarine, won't get any better than they are now, and the price is reasonable enough to bring them into the kitchen.
Peaches get a bad press. And yes, it is true that there are some that refuse to ripen, but that generally applies to those bought in bumper bargain packs. The sort with a faux ribbon handle to carry them by. What seemed like a good deal becomes less so as the wretched things show less and less like the golden fleshed globes we had hoped for. More reliable I think is to go for larger fruits, often sold in fours, where you can get a good look at them, or from the greengrocer where you stand a chance of examining each one.
This is truly a late-summer treat. I have yet to find an early season peach worth the money. Even if they do ripen, their flavour seems lacking. Patience in this instance is likely to be rewarded – wait for July and August. (I rarely touch a peach till mid-June, when the French and Italian ones come on line.) Those in the fridge right now, heavy with juice and with flesh the colour of a late-summer sunset, are possibly the best I can remember. You need a bib to cope with them.
In the kitchen I find adding lemon, in the form of syrup, zest or juice, has a dazzling effect, removing at once their tendency to cloy. Try making a lemon cooking syrup with water, juice, strips of lemon rind and a generous amount of sugar. Lower the fruit in, let it come to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Then allow the fruits to cool in the syrup. Chill for a good few hours before serving.
I finally got round to baking a peach pie this week, and rather than add lemon to the fruit, I added it to the pastry instead. The trick worked. And coupled with a teaspoon or so of orange zest in the filling, I took a pie from the oven that was head and shoulders above those I have had before.
Annoyingly, there is little you can do to rescue a refusenik peach. Those that stubbornly refuse to ripen are not going to be helped by any amount of warmth or TLC. Yes, their flesh will soften, but the flavour will still be lacking. You can cook with them rather than waste them, but they still won't come to much. For my money the never-ripening peach seems to be less of a problem than it was, or maybe it is just a freak year. Whatever, I am making the most of it.
A peach pie with lemon pastryA grating of orange zest in the filling and lemon in the pastry crust lift this home-style pie away from the risk of cloying. A jug of cream may be welcome. Serves 6.
For the pastry
150g golden caster sugar
the grated zest of a small lemon
1 tsp baking powder
a little milk and sugar to finish
For the filling
6 medium-sized, ripe peaches
2 tbsp caster sugar
the grated zest of a small to medium orange
1 heaped tbsp cornflour
You will also need a 24cm (18cm across the base) metal pie plate
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Lightly butter the pie plate. Mix in the egg, continue creaming, then add the grated lemon zest. Sift together the flour and the baking powder, then fold tenderly into the butter and sugar mixture. Form the dough into a ball and place on a floured work surface. Knead very lightly for a minute or so, then cut in half. Use one half of the dough to line the pie plate. Place this, and the remaining half in the fridge.
Halve the peaches and remove their stones. Cut each peach half into large pieces and put in a bowl with the sugar, orange zest and cornflour. Toss together gently, then spoon into the pie plate. Roll out the reserved pastry to generously fit the top of the pie. Brush the rim of the pastry in the pie plate with a little milk, then lower the second piece of pastry on top. Press the edges to seal, pressing or pinching them together as you wish, then brush the pie lightly with milk and dust lightly with sugar. Pierce a small hole or cut in the centre of the crust to let the steam out.
Bake for 40 minutes or so until the crust is pale gold. Leave to settle for 10-15 minutes or more before serving.
Peaches with almonds and cream cheeseOver the years I seem to have stuffed baked peaches with everything from amaretti to marzipan and I still keep coming back for more. Once you have tugged out that pointy, oval stone, the crater left behind begs for some sort of filling. Something almond-based generally works best. Serves 4.
4 ripe peaches
8 tbsp cream cheese or mascarpone
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp grated orange zest
2 or 3 drops vanilla extract
4 tbsp ground almonds
a little demerara sugar
Slice the peaches in half and twist out the stone. In a mixing bowl, stir together the cream cheese, sugar, orange zest and two or three drops of vanilla extract. Scatter the ground almonds on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for a few minutes till they smell warm and nutty. Fold them into the cream cheese.
Put the peach halves, snugly together and hollow side up, in a baking dish. Pile the filling on top of the peaches, then dust lightly with demerara sugar. Bake for 20 minutes or so till the top has just started to turn gold. Serve warm.