In a Pickle

Some consider the family a basic building block of society, nests that nurture civility and tolerance, but we all know they’re vulgar hotbeds of contention. If you’re lucky and manage to stay out of court most of the time, the strife is petty, like the genetic tempest in a teapot I created over–-of all things–-pickled peaches.

We’d been having a carefree back-and-forth online discussion on our family website about a traditional holiday meal when I oh-so-casually mentioned that a cold plate featuring stuffed celery, trimmed green onions, black olives, and pickled peaches always appeared on our table. The pit hit the fan when a younger relative professed that she had no idea what pickled peaches were, much less what they taste like, to which I expressed what they obviously considered an excessive degree of shock and dismay.

Before I could sit sideways to assess my position, I was in a pickle myself. Another young cousin called me “a snooty old know-it-all”, another chimed in with “Mr. High-and-Mighty,” and after that it was a “jump on Jesse” free-for-all employing an excessive amount of rude language. Confident in my legendary modesty and self-effacement, I managed to remain calm for about 30 seconds. Later, to assuage my bruised conceit, I made pickled peaches. Hell, I had to do it anyway.

Pickled peaches are perfect for any holiday table or used as you might any canned peach in cobblers, cakes or for ice cream. Select the smallest fresh cling peaches you can find. It doesn’t matter if they’re a little bit green; in fact, you shouldn’t use peaches that are soft and ripe enough to eat out of hand because they tend to fall apart when moved. Wash peaches, drop them in briskly boiling water for about a minute or two to loosen the skins, and peel. For every four pounds of peaches, combine 3 cups sugar and 2 cups vinegar, add two pieces of stick cinnamon broken into 2-inch pieces and two teaspoons whole cloves. Heat until sugar is dissolved and mixture is bubbling. Pack peaches into sterilized quart jars, add hot spiced syrup (with enough water if needed to cover) seal tightly and process for 10 minutes. Let sit a week.

Peach Pavlova

Summer means peaches in Mississippi. Early varieties are cling, later ones freestone. Chilton County, Alabama peaches enjoy a vaulted reputation, but north central Mississippi growers in Pontotoc and Lafayette counties provide fruit that’s comparable or better.

Meringues have a reputation for being tricky and if you’re clumsy they are. Bring the whites to room temperature before whipping (use a mixer, trust me on this), and while back in the day humid weather could make a meringue heavy, in air-conditioned homes it’s not a factor. A squirt of lemon juice or a few drops of vinegar helps stabilize the froth.

Preheat oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a circle in the middle. For one meringue base, whip four egg whites until the peaks are soft, then whip in about a cup of cup confectioner’s sugar in a drizzle. When the whites are glossy, gently blend in a teaspoon each vanilla extract, lemon juice, along with two teaspoons cornstarch. Spoon meringue onto the parchment paper circle. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, leaving a slight depression in the center. Bake for half hour, more if the center feels squishy. Top or layer with whipped cream and fruit. Chopped pistachios and/or almonds are a nice touch.

Peach Melba

For sheer succulence, few fruits on earth can match a ripe-on-point peach fresh off the tree, and Escoffier, “the king of chefs and the chef of kings,” affirmed the fruit’s supremacy when he created an astoundingly superb yet simple dish to celebrate the great operatic coloratura soprano, Nellie Melba.

Dame Nellie Melba, (1861-1931), was a skilled pianist and organist as a youngster, but she did not study singing until in her twenties. She made her operatic debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1887 at Brussels under the name Melba, derived from that of the city of Melbourne. Until 1926 she sang in the principal opera houses of Europe and the United States, particularly Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, excelling in Delibes’s Lakmé, as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, and as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She returned to Melbourne in 1926. Her image is on the Australian one-hundred-dollar bill.

Melba was not known as a Wagnerian singer, although she occasionally sang Elsa in Lohengrin, which she did to acclaim in 1892, at Covent Garden. The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party at the Savoy to celebrate her triumph. For the occasion, Escoffier created a new dessert, and to display it, he used an ice sculpture of a swan, which is featured in the opera. The swan carried peaches topped with spun sugar which rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream. In 1900, Escoffier created a new version of the dessert for the occasion of the opening of the Carlton Hotel, where he was head chef. Escoffier topped the peaches with raspberry purée.

Incidentally, in 1897, Nellie, who was “slimming,” complained that her bread was much too thick and sent it to Escoffier in the Savoy kitchen. The chef returned to her table with a thinly sliced piece of toasted bread and promptly named it Melba toast in her honor.

Inferior versions of peach Melba substitute pears, apricots, or strawberries instead of peaches or use raspberry sauce or melted redcurrant jelly instead of raspberry purée. The original dessert used simple ingredients of “tender and very ripe peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a purée of sugared raspberry”. Escoffier himself said, “Any variation on this recipe ruins the delicate balance of its taste.”