Every summer, the first time I run across peaches, plums, or apricots, I do the same thing. I buy some. I buy them when it’s too early in the season, when they’re hard as rocks and have no discernable ripe peach smell. I’m a sucker for stone fruit. That first buy of the season, when it’s really pre-season, is an impulse.
But then it happens. I’m in the store and I’m not thinking about peaches. I’m looking at my Our Groceries list, and I see a mound of orange and yellow and rusty pink. I push my cart toward the peaches and before I’m close enough to test with a gentle squeeze I can smell the perfume. I know as soon as I inhale that they’re ripe and juicy because they smell better than Ellie May Clampett after she’s dabbed a little vanilla extract behind each ear.
Ripe peaches are delicate things. They easily bruise and they have a ridiculously short shelf life. Underripe peaches are easier to transport, so it’s no surprise that agribusiness has figured out how to grow peaches that look ripe before their time. Those first hard peaches I inevitably buy are like grade school beauty contestants. They’re made up to look mature, but they should have been left on the tree to ripen in their own time.
Last week I hit the mother lode. Not only were the peaches perfectly ripe, they weren’t bruised, the skins were intact, they were freestone, and they were organic. If I’m buying them to eat, freestone vs. clingstone isn’t an issue. But when I’m making a peach tart I want peaches with flesh that doesn’t stick to the pit … and with freestone peaches I get beautiful intact crescents.
I have one peach story to share, then I’ll tell you how to make a peach tart that’s nearly foolproof. If you’re among the quartet of women who actually burned water in one of my cooking classes this might be a challenge. (4 women, one pot, and burned beyond redemption … it’s true).
A very nice man called me a few years ago about moving his annual “peach party” from his house to AndyFood. It was getting out of hand in his home kitchen and he wondered if I might be able to streamline things. The peach party was his annual fundraiser for a charity. I came up with a peach-centric menu, turned the party into a cooking class, and still managed to send everyone home with a pie. We used his pie recipe (sliced, peeled peaches, spices, flour, and sugar – in storebought crusts). I lobbied hard the second year to tweak his pie recipe by using crushed shortbread cookies to thicken (cookies are butter, flour, and sugar) to avoid the gloppy white goo that flour-thickened pies tend to exude. I also lobbied for making shortbread crust from scratch. No luck. His party, his recipe.
He didn’t really streamline when he came to AndyFood. It wasn’t in his nature. It made him a good host, but a host who worked so hard before and during the party that he didn’t have time to have a good time. The day of the party he brought ingredients to make peach smoothies. He brought smoked salmon in case someone wanted lox and bagels. He brought peach cookies to eat as people arrived. He brought peach tablecloths, peach banners, huge fold-out tissue paper peaches. As a class we made an Arugula Salad with Peach Vinaigrette, Brown Rice Salad with Peaches and Caramelized Leeks, Grilled Chicken with Peach Salsa (Tacos), Crepes with Ricotta and Grilled Peaches, We made fruit salad, and a peach cobbler. Oh, and we had an omelet bar in case there wasn’t enough food.
He bought 250 pounds of peaches for a party of about 25 people. That’s 25 flats. My kitchen smelled like peaches and baking pies for a week. The peaches were ripe and juicy. The class was one big dripping peach of an event. The floor was sticky, flecked with skins, and muddied with a blend of flour and juice. The dirtier the floor the better the party.
There is no better crust for a fruit tart than shortbread. This is my opinion. A shortbread crust is tender, mildly sweet, and melts in your mouth. It’s a cookie that’s a crust. Best of all it’s easy to make and if you want to avoid rolling pins you can even press it into the tart pan. It’s also dense enough to avoid the soggy bottom fruit tends to cause in tarts.
For my Peach Tart with a Shortbread Crust I start by cutting the peaches in half. If the halves separate when you twist them in opposite directions you’ve got a freestone peach. Cut the half still attached to the pit in half again and twist. Pop the pit out of the quarter-peach still attached. Slice the peaches as thin as possible. How thin will depend the softness of the flesh, the sharpness of your knife, and your skill. Eight to ten slivers per quarter is ideal.
Melt some butter. Stir in a little sugar and spice (your choice – I like cardamom and clove). Toss the peaches in the butter mix and begin to layer on top of the sugar-sprinkled crust. I used to arrange the slices like a fan/pinwheel, but this always leaves gaps near the edge because the pointed tips of the slices don’t meet. Now I arrange the slices with the outer edge of the peach lined up (parallel) to the side of the pan. I start at the edge and work my way toward the center. Then I repeat the process. Two very thin layers is better than one thick layer. Peaches shrink as they cook, and with two layers there are no gaps. I revert to my pinwheel for the center of the tart. I like the contrasting pattern, and it gives a more professional look. If I have a little buttery mix still in the bowl I brush it on the peaches before baking.
Put the tart into a preheated 400 F oven. After 15 minutes lower the temperature to 350 F. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN WHEN YOU LOWER THE HEAT. Yes – it’s fun to look. You’re curious and you want to look, it’s only natural. Don’t. The goal is to start at a high temperature so the bottom of the pan gets hot and the bottom crust starts to form a crust (as in it begins to brown and dry). The gradual decline in temperature gets you 1) a brown but not burned crust and 2) perfectly caramelized peaches. If you peek, you’ll a feel that blast of hot air – and the tart inside will be subjected to a corresponding blast of cold air. I don’t know anyone who makes great baked goods by dousing them with cold air in the middle of baking.
You can look at the tart 20 to 25 minutes after you lower the heat. If the edge is the color of a nice French fry it’s done. Cooking time ranges from a minimum of 40 minutes (including that first 15 minute high-heat session) to a max of about 55 minutes. Why such a big range? How thick were your peach slices? Did you use a 9 or 10-inch pan? How thick was the bottom of the crust vs. the sides? Was your pan black or silver? Were the ingredients cold or room temperature when you started? Did you really pre-heat? Was the rack in the middle or bottom third of the oven. I could go on, but you get the idea… (unless you’re a water burner).
When the tart is finished, and still warm (but not hot) brush it with some apricot jam. Peach jam would be even better, but apricot jam is always available, and it’s an always-in-my-fridge sort of staple. If the jam is too thick to brush, put it in the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds.
Should you serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream? You can, but I serve the tart all by itself. It doesn’t need extra stuff. By not eating it with ice cream (which is really eating two desserts and deluding yourself that it’s one) I feel perfectly comfortable having a slice the next morning for breakfast. I’m eating two desserts, but at least I’m eating them 12 hours apart.