Peaches are female; I've always thought that. I suppose all fruits are, since they are, after all, the bearers of seeds. Ovaries, basically. But there's just something particularly femme about peaches, not to say that real men don't eat them, of course. Peaches are what bring me here today. Not just peaches, but naked, blushing, jewel-tone peaches suspended in a richly scented cream custard above a blissfully crumbly crust. Naked, you ask? Yes indeed. At first, of course, your sweet peach is softly, delicately fuzzy -- but then, oh then, you coax her to slip off her skin, and take a warm bath in cream.
I've been thinking and dreaming and envisioning a sort of peach-cream-custard-tart dessert for weeks now. I kept buying bags of peaches and nectarines at the farmers' market, tenderly giving them their last day's ripening in a paper bag, planning
their transformation into peach-cream-custard-kuchen. But I still wasn't feeling great for a while there and it was hot, too hot for oven-lighting, so I ended up happily eating them out of hand or sliced into bowls, topped with Greek yogurt and drizzled with a tiny thread of wildflower honey. So good. This may be one of the first summers in recent years when I've almost, almost gotten my fill of peaches. Corn and tomatoes, berries and melons croon their summery songs, and gladden my heart and my mouth. But the ripe, drippy peach is summer's quintessence. And although these days there are many mournful screeds about summer's end, there are still peaches in Northeastern U.S. farmers' markets and farm stands. Gather them while ye may.
So I didn't make this dessert I'd been envisioning, and I still didn't make this dessert. Then, however, two things happened. The mercury dropped back down into the 70s, and we had friends over for dinner. Not just any friends, but the darling friend who a) threw me the loveliest and poshest bridal shower ever, b) gave me her mother's gorgeous antique gold mesh bracelet as a shower gift, c) along with her husband, did all the flowers and decorations for the larger of my wedding parties and d) again, along with her husband, gave us our beautiful wedding night at the London Hotel in midtown. And that's just what she's done for me recently. Not only that, but her husband is my husband's very clever and hard-working business partner. Last but not least, these friends are living at the moment in a studio sublet while they wait for lagging contractors to finish renovations on a new home. All their meals are restaurant meals or take-out, so a home-cooked dinner is a huge treat for them these days.
Lots of motivation here to pull out all the stops: truffled foie gras mousse brought back from our recent trip to Montreal, thick (antibiotic and hormone-free, vegetarian-fed beef) porterhouse steaks, fresh corn, a farm-stand vegetable melange so delicious it could be a meal in itself, and dessert: skinless naked blushing cream-custard-cloaked crumbly-crusted peaches.
Often when I conceive of a new recipe, I play around with it too much, and it doesn't quite come off as planned. Not being a food professional, I generally don't have the wherewithal to test and re-test something until it comes out just right, so instead it waits for me to make it again, by which time, if I ever do get around to it, I may already have forgotten what wasn't right in the first place. This time, however, I got it on the first try. I might modify it on another go-round: try nectarines, add some berries to the stone fruit, use a different kind of sugar and maybe just a tad more, since it's not too sweet. But really, it's just so exactly what I had in mind that it may overcome even my relentless desire to tinker.
Really a large tart, this has its roots in an old recipe from Edward Espe Brown's The Tassajara Bread Book, a slim tome which slightly pre-dates California Cuisine but in which you can find much of the thinking that informs our current foodways. I made enough changes that I'm pretty sure it's become my own recipe: cutting back on the sugar, ditching the cinnamon and replacing it with nutmeg, since cinnamon is generally overused in fruit desserts (it doesn't really suit the peach's delicate floral nature -- although a bit of nutmeg does); adding excellent peach liqueur (Mathilde) and vanilla in the form of vanilla sugar in order to enhance without overwhelming; blanching the peaches and leaving them in their round pink-cheeked halves; changing the proportions to create a higher ratio of fruit and custard to crust; and finally adding a sprinkling of crushed amaretti to soak up juices and provide another layer of flavor. So it's related, but not really the same any more as the original, which (despite its Zen Center pedigree) I suspect may have had its roots in an old Betty Crocker cookbook -- where I found even earlier references to something remarkably similar.
But enough blather. I cannot recommend more strongly that you act now, before peaches disappear from your local farm stand or market. Trust me, you'll have plenty of time to play with apples, or even plums. The window for peaches in all their golden-pink pulchritude is rapidly closing; there's just about enough time for you to enjoy a last fling with these lush orbs. Even G, who places himself firmly and manfully in the camp of apples, thought this dessert was a winner (of course, he also thought it would be even better with a creamless filling of apples and a judicious layer of crumble on top, thereby resembling the original only in the pat-in bottom crust, which was, in his words, Best. Crust. Ever). Go now and get those peaches, strip them of their skins, crust them, cream them, bake them -- and then tell me whether, girly fruit or no, this dessert is not beloved by all, gender prejudices notwithstanding.
Peach Cream Custard Kuchen
serves 15 moderate eaters, or fewer voracious types
A few notes: you've already seen from the pictures that this is not really a "presentation" dessert. It's not going to have the drama of a gorgeously decorated cake or pie, but I strongly recommend it for guests or a special occasion dessert because it's so damn delicious. Think of it as a homey sort of thing which can be dressed up to your heart's desire with fruit slices or fruit coulis or mint leaves at the plating stage -- if you wish. In our case, the eagerness to begin snarfing it down prevented us from playing frou-frou with it.
I don't recommend serving it with ice-cream or whipped cream as I've seen suggested in some similar recipes. There's plenty of cream in there already -- oh, and in case the dessert police are after me (hi bro!) because of that 2 cups of heavy cream, please remember that this makes a LOT of servings. Practice portion control, and realize that you're consuming far less cream than you would if eating a piece of pie served with a scoop of ice-cream -- unless it's a very small scoop.
As always, quality ingredients (preferably local fruit and organic dairy goods) make all the difference between a dessert that is transcendant and one that is merely good.
9 just-ripe peaches ( you can use nectarines here, if you wish -- no need to blanch them or skin them in that case)
2 Tbsp. crème de pêche or other good peach liqueur (optional)
2 cups a.p. flour
3/4 unsalted cup butter
1/4 - 1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
8 small amaretti biscuits (hard dry almond macaroons)
2 egg yolks
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 - 1 cup vanilla sugar (demerara or turbinado could also be nice here, in which case you could add vanilla extract to the custard)