The peach, as Atlanta-born food writer Kelly Alexander will tell you, is a remarkably complex and seductive fruit.
Fuzzy, fleshy, juicy and with that signature cleft accentuating the ripeness of its curvature, a naked peach is a bit of a coquette, more of a piece with Ingres’ “Grande Odalisque” than a Cezanne still life. Even more than the cold, waxen apple, it invites you to yield to temptation, to just take a bite.
“I am certainly not going to tell people that if you have a perfect ripe peach at the height of season, you should do anything other than lean over your sink,” says Alexander, the author of “Peaches” (UNC Press, $18), a slim little volume that celebrates the deliciousness of her home state’s most mythic fruit. “That is still the best way.”
And yet in high summer, when Georgia is fairly dripping with peaches, we can enjoy a plethora of preparations — some as familiar as pie and ice cream, others as surprising as tempura and omelets.
In her ode to the peach, one of the latest in a series of single-ingredient cookbooks from UNC Press, Alexander — who grew up in Georgia and now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. — remembers the moment when she fell in love with the fruit. It was at her first pig-pickin’ — an outdoor affair replete with potato salad, cornbread, congealed salads and “just about every other iconic food of the American South you can conjure” — that the young girl tasted her first fresh peach ice cream.
“I stood in that large open field, in the days when a tick bite wasn’t something that you worried could end your life, when I hadn’t yet felt a proper kiss, when the Fourth of July seemed like it lasted for about a week squished into one perfect day … and that homemade peach ice cream was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted,” Alexander writes in her introductory essay, which I believe is the loveliest paean to the peach I have ever encountered.
Alexander, who has worked at Food & Wine and Saveur magazines in New York, says it wasn’t until she left home that she began to appreciate the sublime nature of a Georgia peach. “I don’t think I realized for so long how lucky I was,” she said in an interview. “I was eating the best peach in the world.”
So when UNC Press approached her about writing for its Savor the South series (which so far includes “Pecans,” “Buttermilk” and “Tomatoes”), the peach was a perfect fit. It was also a wonderful opportunity to begin a book with a chapter on desserts! Thus Fried Peach Pies, Classic Peach Melba, and Peach-Blackberry Crumble all get their due, alongside recipes for breakfast dishes; appetizers, salads, mains; condiments; and drinks. (Y’all care for a glass of peach iced tea?)
Over the past few weeks, I have been peeling and slicing my way through “Peaches,” and I have yet to find a pit.
From Fresh Peach Upside-Down Cake (which slipped out of the pan like a dream, each peach slice sealed in caramel like topaz in gold) to Roasted Chicken With Peaches and Rosemary (in which peaches, shallots and rosemary are tucked to steam in the cavity of the bird), this little book has become a delightful and trusted companion.
But my hands-down favorite so far is Alexander’s Puffed Peach Omelet, a gently sweet, custardy little pouf that makes a great romantic brunch for two. “It’s really kind of like a big sweet pancake,” says Alexander, who came up with the omelet when she was experimenting with peach clafoutis.
While sifting through other cookbooks for peach recipes, I happened upon Sheri Castle’s Peach Cobbler With White Cheddar Biscuit Topping, which the author attributes to her North Carolina grandmother. Biscuits made from salty cheese and tangy buttermilk are a wonderful foil to sweet summer peaches.
“I cannot imagine what led her to try cheese with peaches, but we agreed sharp cheddar was the tastiest,” Castle writes in “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” (UNC Press, $35). In a world that doesn’t lack for peach cobblers, Castle’s dumpling-style version is a knockout.
A peach, you see, is like that.
Whether slurped down plain, massaged with butter, preserved in sugar or enrobed in pastry, a peach, no matter how you slice it, never fails to charm and entice.
A passion for peaches
While there are plenty of recipes out there for peach pie and ice cream, these three dishes will make you reconsider this iconic fruit. Start with Puffed Peach Omelet for an elegant brunch dish. Move on to Roasted Chicken With Peaches and Rosemary for a wonderful summertime supper. Then cap it off with Peach Cobbler With White Cheddar Biscuit Topping, which is as comforting and homespun as grandma’s kitchen.
Puffed Peach Omelet
Hands on: 30 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
6 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 peaches, peeled, pitted, cored and sliced 1/4-inch thick
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter, divided
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large nonreactive bowl, mix 1/2 teaspoon of the granulated sugar with the cinnamon. Place the peaches in a bowl, and toss to combine.
Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a small saute pan over medium heat. Add the peaches and saute for about 5 minutes, until they begin to caramelize. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In a medium bowl using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.
In a medium bowl using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the remaining 6 tablespoons of granulated sugar until very light and fluffy. Fold in the vanilla. When well blended, fold in the beaten egg whites.
Melt the remaining 2 teaspoons of butter in an ovenproof omelet pan over moderate heat. Fan out the peaches in the pan and cover with the batter. Allow the omelet to begin to set, about 2 minutes. Place in the oven and bake for about 10 minutes or until puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and carefully invert onto a serving plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar, cut into wedges and serve.
Adapted from “Peaches” by Kelly Alexander (UNC Press, $18)
Per serving: 550 calories (percent of calories from fat, 50), 13 grams protein, 56 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 31 grams fat (16 grams saturated), 488 milligrams cholesterol, 130 milligrams sodium.
Roasted Chicken With Peaches and Rosemary
Hands on: 10 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
For this beguiling and colorful dish, peaches and shallots are stuffed into a bird and roasted. “It’s so easy, so good for dinner on a busy weeknight, and it makes your kitchen and your house smell amazing,” says author Kelly Alexander of her recipe. She suggests crusty bread for sopping up all the pan juices; I suggest a nice chilled rosé.
1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 peaches, quartered and pitted (no need to peel unless you prefer)
4 small shallots, halved
1 tablespoon apple-cider or red-wine vinegar
6 sprigs fresh rosemary
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Thoroughly pat the chicken dry with paper towels, rub with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and season liberally with salt and pepper. Place the bird in a roasting pan or baking dish.
In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, peaches, shallots, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste.
Fill the chicken cavity with the peach mixture, along with the rosemary sprigs, if using. Roast until the chicken is cooked through and a thigh registers 180 degrees on a meat thermometer, about 65 to 75 minutes, or until the juices from the cavity run clear without any pink and the chicken skin is browned and crisp.
Remove from oven and let the chicken rest, covered loosely with foil, for 10 minutes before carving. Serve the chicken sliced, with the peaches, shallots and pan juice spooned over it.
Adapted from “Peaches” by Kelly Alexander (UNC Press, $18)
Per serving: 392 calories (percent of calories from fat, 44), 41 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 19 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 120 milligrams cholesterol, 152 milligrams sodium.
Peach Cobbler With White Cheddar Biscuit Topping
Hands on: 40 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
While the recipe calls for white cheddar and white peaches, you may use yellow cheese and fruit to splendid effect. If you like sweet and salty combinations, try sprinkling just a little sea salt on each dumpling before baking. This cobbler feeds a crowd but can easily be cut in half. You may serve it warm with whipped cream or ice cream, but I like it with just a drizzle of cream or, as my grandmother preferred, evaporated milk.
8 cups 1/2-inch-thick peeled peach slices (preferably white)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
2 cups soft Southern self-rising wheat flour
1 cup grated sharp white cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk
For the filling: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. (You may also use a deep iron skillet, 10 1/2-inch or larger).
Place the peaches in the prepared dish. In a small bowl, mix the sugar, cornstarch, salt, lemon zest, lemon juice and almond extract. Sprinkle the mixture over the peaches. Dot the peaches with the cubes of butter. Bake the filling for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, make the topping.
For the topping: Stir together the flour and the cheese in a medium bowl. Stir together the melted butter and the buttermilk in a small bowl. Slowly pour the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture, stirring gently with a fork to form soft, fairly wet dough.
Remove the peaches from the oven. Stir gently to make sure all of the sugar has dissolved. Drop rounded tablespoons of dough over the filling. Return the cobbler to the oven and continue baking until the biscuits are firm and golden brown on top and the filling bubbles, about 20 minutes more. Let sit for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Adapted from “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” by Sheri Castle (UNC Press, $35)
Per serving: 436 calories (percent of calories from fat, 21), 6 grams protein, 83 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 10 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 28 milligrams cholesterol, 437 milligrams sodium.