Peaches are as much a part of the American summer as empty school yards and beach towels draped over back porch railings. Grown commercially in Maryland, Virginia and 30 other states, these beauties are readily available from now until early autumn, not only in supermarkets but at local roadside stands, farmers markets and orchards. Peaches are bountiful in the United States -- we produce about a fifth of the world's total yield.
Despite their abundance, peaches are not native trees. It's now thought that they originated in China, though peaches have long been associated with Persia; their botanical name is Prunus persica, or "Persian plum." From the Middle East, peaches spread across Europe, and the Spaniards then carried them to Mexico. Various groups of settlers prized them enough to bring them to America, and peach trees were growing in Virginia by 1629.
Smaller, fuzzier and less handsome than our carefully cultivated current-day varieties (the blushing cheeks have been accentuated through hybridization), peaches were still a favorite from the nation's earliest years. Colonial-era cookbooks usually included recipes for drying peaches and for making peach marmalade or conserve, brandy and cordial. On occasion, they also contained recipes for peach chips -- candied peach slices -- and cider made with peaches instead of apples. In an age before refrigeration, these were common ways to extend the enjoyment of peaches beyond their brief harvesting period.
Today, with modern transportation and shipping and a wealth of new varieties that horticulturalists have developed, the extraordinary pleasure of plump, ripe peaches no longer has to be fleeting. We can now enjoy the bouquet, intense fruit flavor and juicy goodness of fresh American peaches from late May into autumn. Following are just a couple of my favorite sweet ways to use them. (For details on selecting, storing and working with peaches, see box at right. )
8 to 10 servings
The rich, buttery topping on this peach crisp does double duty. Some of it is stirred into the filling to add texture and flavor. The remainder goes on top.
You may substitute 3 cups fresh, pitted, dark sweet cherries or 1 pound frozen and thawed unsweetened, pitted dark cherries for 3 cups of peaches.
11/3 cups flour
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus additional for the baking dish
8 cups peeled, pitted and sliced fresh peaches (about 14 medium peaches)
Vanilla ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, brown and granulated sugars, oats, salt and cinnamon. Add the butter and stir just until the butter is completely incorporated and the mixture forms small clumps.
Measure out 3/4 cup of the topping and transfer to a large bowl. Add the peaches to the 3/4 cup topping and stir gently until incorporated. Transfer the peach mixture to the prepared dish and then sprinkle the remaining topping evenly over the top.
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is well browned and the filling is bubbly. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool to barely warm or room temperature before serving. Serve spooned into bowls, topped if desired with scoops of vanilla ice cream or dollops of whipped cream. (The crisp is best fresh.)
Per serving (based on 10): 372 calories, 4 gm protein, 69 gm carbohydrates, 11 gm fat, 26 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 127 mg sodium, 6 gm dietary fiber
Peach Upside-Down Cake
8 to 10 servings
This peach cake has an intense caramel flavor. Since the peaches continue to give off juice as they stand, for best texture serve the cake within a few hours of baking. If desired, serve with vanilla or caramel ice cream.
For the peaches:
31/3 cups peeled, thickly sliced, ripe but not overripe peaches (about 6 medium peaches)
2/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
For the batter:
12/3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole or low-fat milk
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.
For the peaches: In a medium bowl, gently toss together the peaches, 3 tablespoons of the brown sugar and the lemon juice. Set aside until the peaches begin to release their juice, about 15 minutes. Transfer the peach mixture to a strainer or colander placed over a bowl and let stand until completely drained, 15 to 20 minutes; reserve the peaches and juice separately.
In a large ovenproof, nonreactive skillet or casserole dish over medium-high heat, heat the remaining 2/3 cup brown sugar and the butter, stirring constantly to prevent scorching, until the butter melts completely and the mixture begins to bubble. It may be necessary to reduce the heat slightly. Simmer gently, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Standing back to avoid steam and splatters and using a long-handled wooden spoon, carefully add the juice from the strained peaches, stirring constantly, until the mixture is completely incorporated and returns to a bubble. Cook, stirring constantly, until the caramel boils down to the consistency of thin gravy, about 2 more minutes. If may be necessary to adjust the heat slightly. Remove from the heat. Arrange the peaches as attractively as possible over the caramel mixture.
For the batter: In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and granulated sugar until well combined and lightened, about 1 minute. Add the egg, lemon zest and vanilla, increase the heat to medium-high and beat until very light and fluffy, about 2 more minutes. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add half the flour mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Add half of the milk and mix just until incorporated. Lightly beat in the remaining flour mixture, then the remaining milk. Increase the speed to medium and beat just until the batter is well blended and smooth, 1 to 11/2 minutes longer. Scrape the batter over the fruit, using a table knife to spread it evenly. Place the skillet on the baking sheet.
Bake the cake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake surface is nicely browned. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool for about 15 minutes. Place a large plate over the still-warm skillet or dish and carefully invert the cake onto the plate. Remove the skillet; if any caramel or peach pieces remain in the skillet, carefully spoon it onto the surface of the cake. Set aside to cool for at least 10 to 15 more minutes before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Per serving (based on 10): 402 calories, 4 gm protein, 63 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 63 mg cholesterol, 10 gm saturated fat, 219 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Nancy Baggett is the author of "The All-American Cookie Book" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). She can be reached through her Web site, www.kitchenlane.com.