Peaches originated in China and made their way to Persia, Greece, and temperate European countries including Italy, Spain, and France. They were first introduced to the southeastern United States more than 300 years ago by Spanish explorers. It is thought that English and French settlers brought peach seeds with them to the northeastern United States. At first peaches in America were mostly grown in private orchards until commercial production took off in the 19th century.
I found several 19th century peach recipes while doing research for my current book, The Thousand Dollar Dinner. Peach pie was one of the items featured as part of the Thirteenth Course (Pastry) at that 1851 feast. The dinner's chef and host, Philadelphia restauranteur James Parkinson, also included peach tarts, peach ice cream and peaches and ice cream on his menus. In The Complete Confectioner (1844), his mother, pastry cook and confectioner Eleanor Parkinson, listed recipes for peach ice, peach water ice, peach paste (made by mixing the fruit's pulp with sugar and heating it to marmalade consistency, then forming it into rings and knots so it could be candied or crystallized), and even peach water (described as a cooling drink for balls and routs!)
Today peaches are still used to infuse and enhance drinks such as peach tea and cocktails (including bellinis and margaritas). They are also incorporated into many savory dishes such as salads and pizza as well as condiments such as relishes, chutneys and barbecue sauce. My husband and I love to grill them with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar - a terrific accompaniment to pork, chicken or turkey.
But peach desserts are still probably the most popular way to showcase the juicy, fragrant fruit, including cobblers, crisps, crumbles, cakes and pies. In fact, peaches are such a part of American lore that according to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink," peach cobbler rivals traditional apple pie as the classic all-American dessert." I didn't realize this when I picked up a large sackful of the last of the late-summer white peaches last week at the Lower Makefield Farmer's Market, but this is exactly what I had planned on making after seeing the recipe in Greg Patent's Baking in America. This batch of plump sweet peaches have been delectable eating right out of hand, and also in the delicious cobbler I made over the weekend.
Patent's recipe is actually labeled Raspberry Cobbler (which I'm sure is also fantastic), but he lists many alternate fruit combinations including peaches, as well as peaches paired with blueberries and raspberries. I followed his recipe, just swapping out some orange-flower water for the almond extract and a combination of nutmeg and cinnamon for the pumpkin pie spice. It was fantastic, and this flavor combination nicely complemented the peaches - aromatic but not overpowering - it definitely gave the dessert a little something extra.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
- 6 cups fresh peaches
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 tablespoon orange-flower water (or 1/2 teaspoon almond extract)
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
- 2/3 cup milk
- 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup boiling water
- Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat oven to 350F.
- Peel, pit and cut 2 pounds of peaches into 1/2 inch slices; you should have 6 cups. Combine with the lemon juice, spices and orange-flower water.
- Carefully spread peaches in a 2 1/2- quart shallow baking dish, such as a 12x8-inch or 10-inch round dish.
- Sift flour, 1/4 cup sugar, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl. Cut the butter in with a pastry blender or two knives until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Ass the milk and stir only until the dry ingredients are moistened. Using two small teaspoons, place about half the batter in small mounds all around the edges of the dish. Spread the batter evenly with the back of a spoon, Place the remaining batter by spoonfuls over the fruit in the center and spread carefully into an even layer, covering the fruit completely.
- Mix the remaining 1 1/4 cups sugar with the cornstarch in a small bowl. Sprinkle evenly over batter. Carefully pour boiling water all over the top.
- Bake for 50 minutes. Increase the temperature to 400F and bake for about 10 minutes longer, until the cobbler is well browned and the juices are bubbly. Cool on a wire rack and serve warm at room temperature
(Adapted from the Raspberry Cobbler recipe in Baking in America by Greg Patent)