Since June, here’s the arduous sequence I have had to undertake in order to satisfy my sweet tooth: Go outside. Stroll through the garden. Pick. Eat.
On my sister and brother-in-law’s homestead in southern Maine, where I’m writing this year, hardly a day has gone by when I haven’t been able to pluck strawberries, raspberries or blueberries from their plants. For a blissful couple of weeks, I could take all three. With no pesticides to worry about, there’s little to no washing required; the only thing I’m looking to avoid eating is a little dirt or perhaps a bug.
The strawberry harvest was disappointing, especially compared with last year. But that merely meant we didn’t have enough bounty to put up my favorite strawberry-vanilla jam. I still picked, and ate, my fair share out of hand. Sometimes, when the harvest is great or my stomach is full, berries even make it back into the house. (When Peter is picking those blues, plenty make it back — but they’re marked “for the freezer” because he’s thinking ahead. Smart guy.)
Now we’re moving from berry season into stone-fruit season, my absolute favorite, and I have to start looking elsewhere for my fix. I thought some little plum trees on the homestead might come to my rescue, but they’re still too young to produce more than a few fruit every year. At the weekly market managed by my sister, farmers have just started selling peaches, with plums and nectarines and possibly even cherries — the holy grail of stone fruit, in my book — not far behind. Better yet, a good friend recently invited us over to pick our fill of her peaches; we scored a bushel, and all she asked for in return was a jar or two of any jam that might result.
The truth is, as much as I proselytize about the liberating joys of cooking for one, I’m far more likely to turn on the stove for dessert when the dish is destined for a crowd or perhaps when it’s winter and my appetite for carbs increases.
In summer, when the most luscious stone fruit and berries are so scrumptious on their own, or with just the slightest additions, I feel compelled to streamline the path from plant to plate. That’s when I layer them, raw, with Greek-style yogurt (this year, it’s my own, made from exquisite raw milk), honey harvested from the hives I can see from my third-floor desk, and maybe nuts or a crumbled cookie for texture. When I’m feeling positively fancy, I’ll go a little further, making a faux fruit tart in a jar, with a cookie “crust” packed into the bottom. But still without cooking.
Sometimes, though, even peaches need a little help, and by that I mean some heat. Those specimens we brought back from our friend’s house were slow to ripen, and many of them started to look as if they were going directly from unripe to rotten, meaning I had to use them up quickly — and boost their flavor. First, I used the wood-fired brick oven outside to roast the peaches with sugar, then packed the deeply caramelized, slightly smoky halves into jars and refrigerated them until a dinner party, when I layered them onto puff pastry with blackberries on top. Then I made a couple dozen pints of jam, spiking it with a new favorite addition, lemon basil.
Finally, tired of cooking in such large batches, I sprinkled two peach halves with cardamom, drizzled them with honey, topped them with my own granola and baked them until they were almost creamy inside and crunchy on top. I called it a one-peach crisp and kept it to myself, but the same approach works with any fruit whose serving size is single: nectarine, large plum and, in the fall, apple.
It’s not that I would never make either of these desserts for a dinner party. The peaches, particularly, don’t take much more time to make for four, six or even 12 servings than they do for one. In the summertime, when the cooking is easy, or should be, you can have the best of both worlds. Bake as many peaches as you’d like, eat one after dinner, and save the rest for some friends. Or for breakfast.