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Archive for Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Commercial peaches just don’t stack up

July 13, 2005

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I was disappointed earlier this summer when rain in late May split the nearly ripe cherries on the trees in our yard. Several of us gathered under the tree, where we quickly picked the sweetest and ate them where we stood. The loss of that crop has me feeling a little anxious as I watch our peach tree, now heavy with orange and pink fruit and about two weeks from harvest.

As someone who grew up in town during the time when cling peaches were a school cafeteria mainstay, I had little exposure to any fresh peaches but the rock-hard imports from the grocery store. Having a peach tree in the yard has completely transformed my view of this fruit, whose real flavor is only hinted at in the supermarket peach.

Even my tree's least attractive peach, undersized and slightly misshapen, tastes superior to anything I have found in a produce bin. For starters, the peaches available in the grocery store have been picked long before they are ripe, which keeps them from bruising during transport and increases their shelf life in the store.

That means the peaches are pulled off the tree before the flavor is fully developed. Even when a peach "ripens" in your kitchen, you still can't recapture the taste that is lost at the moment when the peach is detached from the tree.

Like all stone fruit, peach trees are susceptible to a long list of diseases, including scab and leaf curl, but these can generally be kept in check with sulfur and other natural controls. Picture-perfect peaches don't happen in nature. Commercial growers, who must create blemish-free peaches for the consumer market, use a lot of chemicals. In fact, many growers' manuals recommend spraying trees even before problems develop.

With my tree, I not only can pick at the moment of ripeness, but I know what chemicals to which the fruit has been exposed. When the peaches are coming off my tree, I am less persnickety about their appearance. A spot here or a dimple there can be endearing because, after all, they are my peaches.

If you plant a peach tree, do it in spring and buy the baby tree at a local nursery. Most peach tree varieties are climate-sensitive, and a reputable vendor will know which ones are appropriate for this location.

The following recipe, from the August issue of Bon Appetit, adds the flavor of vanilla bean to the old standby of peach cobbler. For baking, you'll want ripe, flavorful and firm peaches. This can be served with vanilla ice cream.

Fresh Peach-Vanilla Cobbler

2 1/4 cups sugar, divided

1/2 vanilla bean, cut into 1-inch pieces

5 pounds peaches, peeled, cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick slices

2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 cups flour

2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

4 large eggs

1/4 cup whole milk

3 tablespoons triple sec or orange juice

1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoon almond extract

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Blend 3/4 cup sugar and vanilla bean in processor until vanilla is finely ground. Sift vanilla sugar into large bowl. Add peaches and 2 tablespoons flour; toss to coat. Transfer mixture to 13-by-9-by-2-inch glass baking dish. Bake until bubbling, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar and 1 1/2 cups flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda in large bowl. Whisk eggs and next four ingredients, and whisk until smooth. Fold in melted butter.

Pour batter over hot peach mixture. Continue baking until topping is brown and tester inserted into center of topping comes out clean, about 45 minutes longer. Cool slightly and serve.

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