Monday, August 23, 2010

Eat a Peach

Glass peach at the Atlanta Botanical Garden by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 In 1970, when I was a young girl in tri-colored Keds and slip-down pigtails, my family packed up the blue Chevy station wagon and moved from Texas to Gaffney, South Carolina. I think my parents first saw that ferrous red clay and thought they had come to the jumping-off point of the earth. They were both Southerners, but city folks - Dad from Birmingham and mom from genteel Nashville, they weren’t prepared for the Mayberryness of upstate South Carolina, but it grew on them, so much so that 30 years after we moved away, my mom still has her copy of the Gaffney phone book tucked away in her desk.

Gaffney had about 20,000 citizens then, living in communities with names like Grassy Pond, Macedonia and Corinth. We lived in a new neighborhood, Rutledge Acres, bordered by farms, just off the frontage road, in a brick ranch house on Westland Drive. A neighborhood with lots of kids who rode their bikes on the looping street that was ideal for an after-dinner stroll.

Gaffney is known for more than red clay - it’s in the Piedmont, the Italian phrase for "foot of the mountains," with climate and soil ideal for growing peaches. In my biased opinion, the best peaches in the world are grown there.

Growing up in Gaffney, Sunny Slope Orchards was the king of the peach business. On dusty summer evenings, my parents would load us kids into the station wagon for a trip to the peach shed to buy a crate of just-picked and processed tree-ripened peaches. To this day, I remember the hum of the machinery, the oppressive summer heat and the smell of just-washed peaches. Do you think that peach in the grocery store smells like heaven? Imagine a shed with thousands of peaches - unbelievable - the sweet aroma of the fruit was overwhelming.
An Italian family, the Caggiano's, owned Sunny Slope, (and still do, although the business is now consolidated in Bridgeton, N.J.). The vintage fruit label on the crate features a racing car with the script "V. Caggiano & Sons." I took a peach crate with this label with me to college:

  sunny slope

During peach season, we’d go to the Little Moo Dairy Barn - I’m not making the name up, it’s the ice cream shop of my childhood - and I’d order a Peach Parfait in a plastic cup with a removable bottom. Layers of soft-serve vanilla ice cream and juicy peach chunks, topped off with whipped cream and a cherry. If you wanted to save the last few bites of the ice cream, you could remove the bottom, put it on the top and prop the container in the freezer.

There was one other way to eat a peach, and every person should have this memory: standing barefoot on the front porch with a ripe peach in your hands, biting through the suedey skin to the soft flesh underneath, the juice forming rivulets down your arm and dripping on your toes. You know what you do, you reach your tongue out and lick that last little drop of your chin. Oh, that was good. One down, a bushel to go.

Peaches by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

To showcase just one recipe with peaches, I decided to go all Harvest Gold '70s and make a version of a company’s coming dish - Peach Pizza. It’s a sweet brioche base with sliced peaches, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and baked.

This is more of a breakfast or brunch treat than a dessert. The brioche is delicious, but if you’re not a baker, buy a package of puff pastry, roll out one piece, cut out a 10-inch circle, brush with melted butter, top with the sliced peaches, sugar and cinnamon and bake according to package directions. The result will be crisp and delicious.

peach pizza
Peach pizza by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 Peach Pizza

Yield: 4 Pizzas

1 cup whole milk, scalded

2/3 cup unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3 eggs, beaten

1 package instant yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

6 cups flour

1/4 cup butter, melted

3 pounds peaches, peeled and thinly sliced

Sugar, for sprinkling

Cinnamon, for sprinkling

 1. To scald milk: Pour milk into pan and turn heat to medium. As the milk heats, look for a ring of bubbles around the perimeter. (Don't walk away from boiling milk - over-boiled milk is absoslutely the worst pot to clean.) If a skin forms, stir it into the milk. Remove from heat, add butter and let cool.

2. When the milk mixture cools to slightly warm, add sugar, yeast, salt and eggs.

3. Using a heavy-duty mixture, pour in milk mixture then add flour, 1 cup at a time, mixing until dough is soft, but not sticky.

4. Switch to a dough hook and knead dough for a couple of minutes. Remove dough from bowl, coat the interior of the bowl with oil, return the dough to the bowl, flipping the dough until it is well-coated. Cover with plastic wrap, set in a warm place and let rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

5. Punch down dough, knead a couple of times, then divide into four balls. Shape each ball into a round and place on lined baking sheets.

6. Preheat the oven to 350°. Brush melted butter over the dough and cover with peach slices. Brush more butter over the peaches and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes.

7. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or yogurt or whipped cream.
Text & images © 2010 Lucy Mercer.

The blown glass peach in the first photo is by the Cohn-Stone Studios on display through October at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

The recipe is adapted from

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