Especially extravagant occasions like James Parkinson’s seventeen-course Thousand Dollar Dinner in 1851 featured multiple divisions and headings. For this elegant feast, the Philadelphia restaurateur kicked off the first of four sweet courses with a “pastry” course that featured thirteen mouth-watering indulgences including pies, cakes, puddings, creams, meringues, and blancmange. Of these, only one was a fruit pie—peach. Of course many of the fruits we associate with pie are available only in the late spring through the fall, which would have made it difficult for him to get access to them for his April dinner. Peaches are one of the earlier ripening fruits, so possibly he got his hands on some very early varieties from Georgia or even Bermuda. Or perhaps he used dried or preserved fruit to make the pie.
Parkinson must have had a particular fondness for the juicy fruit, as he featured peaches quite a bit on his menus—including peach tarts, peach ice cream, and peaches and ice cream. In The Complete Confectioner (1844), his mother 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).
In doing the research to recreate the type of pie Parkinson would have served, I stumbled across an interesting fact that I didn’t realize – many nineteenth century peach pie recipes called for whole peaches. That’s right – whole, unpitted peaches, nestled on top of a pastry crust and then sprinkled with just sugar, flour and water and covered with a top crust. The idea behind this method is the fact that the peach kernels located inside the pit produce a subtle almond-flavored essence. In fact, peach kernels were often used to flavor other dishes such as custards, preserved peaches, and even cream sauce. They were also enjoyed as candy – the “Chinese almonds” served during the confectionery course at the Thousand Dollar Dinner were kernels (large, sweet, nontoxic seeds) from special apricots grown solely for this purpose. They were often used in the nineteenth century as a substitute for bitter almonds in syrups, ices and sweet almond paste, as only a small quantity was needed to impart a rich flavor.
There were some nineteenth century recipes that instructed pitting and slicing the peaches (and some that said just to halve them) before putting in the pie, but these were mostly later in the century. So it is likely the pie served by Parkinson featured whole peaches – in any case, I just had to try this method!
I combined two recipes - one from an 1841 cookbook called The American Housewife by an anonymous author who billed herself simply as “An Experienced Lady,” and one from an 1845 cookbook called Every Lady's Book by T.J. Crowen, who also went by the title “A Lady of New York.” Both recipes simply instruct placing the whole peaches in a deep pie plate lined with a pastry crust. However, Every Lady’s Book says to peel the peaches, which I did. This cookbook also suggests using small, “not very ripe” peaches, which is a good tip, as the peaches fit better in the pie pan and are more likely to stay intact and not fall apart or get mushy. And both mention keeping the peach pits in the pie for flavor.
Here’s the original recipe from The American Housewife:
Peach Pie. Take mellow, juicy peaches—wash and put them in a deep pie plate, lined with pie crust. Sprinkle a thick layer of sugar on each layer of peaches, put in about a table-spoonful of water, and sprinkle a little flour over the top—cover it with a thick crust, and bake the pie from fifty to sixty minutes. Pies made in this manner are much better than with the stones taken out, as the prussic acid of the stone gives the pie a fine flavor. If the peaches are not mellow, they will require stewing before being made into a pie. Dried peaches should be stewed soft, and sweetened, before they are made into a pie—they do not require any spice.
Here’s the one from Every Lady’s Book:
Peach Pie Or Pudding.—Take small sized peaches, not very ripe, peel them without cutting them up, line a square pie dish with paste, strew some sugar over it, then lay in the peaches rather close together, then strew them plentifully with sugar, pour a little water over, dredge on some flour, and cover with a good paste crust; when the crust is done it is enough. Or, the peaches may be cut in rather thick slices. Leaving the stones in the peaches improves the flavor.
And here’s my modern version:
Peach Pie (with whole peaches)
- Several small, firm peaches (I ended up using eight)
- 2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 1 tablespoon water
- Pre-made double pie crust