For my final summer holiday, I spent five days in mid-August with my husband and two close friends in Pittsburgh. Sometimes when you go on vacation there is just no break, escape or sense of lightness. Your high expectations are dashed by delays, expense and exhaustion.
But this was a true holiday, even with a few work sessions packed in between and many long days on the road. We watched documentaries, cooked meals, went to art galleries and ate good food. Nothing felt demanding or negative. Life just sailed pleasantly by.
On our last night in Pittsburgh, the four of us worked together to put together dinner. Everyone humming along at the same pace, in a big kitchen, pitching in with their part of the meal. I don't think I had cooked in such a collaborative way before. It was joyous and effortless.
My contribution was peach pie, another first. I'd never had peach pie before -- not even a slice -- so baking one was an experiment. But, like the holiday, it came out perfectly. Not too sweet. Not too much liquid. Just flaky crust and golden hues. I was in love.
After such a euphoric first-peach-pie experience, I was feeling bold. I decided that what we really needed to do was drive out of town to an orchard and pick some peaches -- for pies, for canning, for jams and more. We couldn't have too many peaches!
But the peach picking went surprisingly fast. The fruit was ripe, the weather cool. It was a perfect day. Plus the farm had dropped the price per pound because there were too many to go around. After filling 4 pecks, I was hardly content. So I convinced my husband we really needed some heirloom tomatoes too. And just a couple raspberries.
To our hefty load, we added 4 more pecks of tomatoes. At this point, we were up to 80 pounds of ripe fruit. Thankfully the raspberries weren't anything special, so we showed due restraint, and just bought a pint.
When we arrived back home that evening, the euphoria from the fields was still hanging around our kitchen. Why not make single-heirloom tomato sauce? (More on that in a future post.) How exciting would that be? My husband mentioned we might just want to can whole tomatoes, and cook them into sauce later, what with the 80 pounds of fruit we had to deal with. But I paid this thought no notice -- we really needed tomato sauce, not whole tomatoes -- and we got to work.
By 11:30 PM, we were up to our ears in tomato sauce and exhausted. We hadn't touched the peaches.
That night I dreamt I made a peach pie without a lattice top. I was horrified! How would the juices steam out? How would I ensure the right consistency? After one pie, I was clearly an expert. This would not do.
I awoke, resolved to make peach pies worth their salt. That and peach popsicles, peach infused liqueur, canned peaches, peach jams. And while I was at it, why not throw in some peach hand pies? Last night's exhaustion dissolved, I recommitted to peaches in winter.
We counted our peaches: 120. No small feat. We would need to get strategic about this. After some back of the envelope peach-to-pound-ratio calculations, we settled on a full itinerary for the day.
With Deb Perelman -- peach-obsessive -- as my guide, I decided I would make two more of her pies, given how much success I'd had the first time around. And why not try her bourbon hand pies while I was at it? I had some failed vanilla bourbon lying around from a stint at making vanilla extract a few years ago -- that would do just the trick.
But pie making was labour intensive, and even with some optimism, these pies would only eat up a quarter of our supply. My husband would need to start canning. And making jam. And maybe even try his hand at some peach popsicles.
If all else failed, we could chop up the remaining dozens and freeze them for smoothies later on. Yes, this would be simple.
Except the day became the evening, and the peaches sat untouched like a still life painting in the front room. We got started late, and by 5:00 I had dumped unlabeled icing sugar into the pie dough instead of flour. It turns out we were out of flour. I would have to go to the store, and start again. So pie making began at 6PM.
I made six pie shells. My husband blanched and peeled peach after peach. We started measuring out precise ratios of acid to sugar for the canning. We started getting stressed. Was it just me, or was it hotter in here than yesterday? The steam was starting to get to me.
After exhausting Neko Case's collected works, I began to have doubts about this whole enterprise. The hand pies just didn't look like the pictures. My filling was runny. Maybe the peaches were overripe, and refusing to hold onto their juice? Weary of rolling pins, I kept putting more filling into each hand pie than recommended. We were exceeding the safe dough-to-liquid ratio. The first two pies ended up on the floor, peach filling everywhere. This was not going well.
But onward! These peaches were not going to put themselves up. I filled and pinched and rolled and cut and did the whole thing again. Until I was out of dough. I made 22 hand pies that night; my husband canned 7 jars of peaches, and 7 jars of jam. This was progress.
Still, I went to bed with no proper pies to show for my effort. The crust sat resting in the fridge, the anointed peaches still bore their flesh. That effortless first pie was feeling quite far away.
The third day of peach-fest-2013 I was determined: this had to end. I would have two pies with beautiful latticed tops in the freezer by noon. Working as a team, I rolled out the now stiff crust with significant muscle, while my husband measured and stirred and strained out extra juice.
The pies, while more watery than my perfect-first, would be delicious. I just had to get them into the freezer. Oh, and it needed to be flat. Never mind that our tiny freezer was overflowing with strawberries picked in June and those hand pies from the day before. We were freezing these pies now, god dammit!
When the lattice tops were finished, the extra dough was bagged, and when enough space had been cleared to freeze the pies on a flat surface, I asked my husband for the updated count. Three peaches left. That's it? What happened to slicing and freezing a bunch?
No, no. This was fine. Well and good. We had enough peaches left to riff off these popsicles, substituting light cream rather than the recommended healthier alternative. I fussed and fretted, clearing more level space to freeze the popsicles. And then, it was over. The peaches, like summer, were gone. Only the mess left over to clean tomorrow.
Post Peach-picking resources
If you find yourself with too many peaches after an ambitious day in the orchard, let me recommend the following recipes and resources.
- Put 'em up is an excellent, basic canning and preserving book. She has recipes for peach salsa, peach jam, canned peaches and more.
- Smitten Kitchen has tons of peach recipes, including the aforementioned peach hand pies and basic peach pie. Both are delicious.
- Peach bourbon: Put 2-3 blanched, skinned and halved peaches in a jar and cover with bourbon (other people recommend vodka, so you could try that instead. Not my thing.) Put in a sliced vanilla bean if you are fancy. Stir daily and check after 3-5 days. Remove the fruit and strain. You can eat the fruit if you like. If you are full of extra time, you could grill the peaches before infusing. No doubt this is delightful.
- Peach juice: If you find your peaches, like mine, are overripe then strain off some of their liquid before making pie fillings. I did this for the pies and it worked out much better than the runny hand-pie batter. You can store the peach juice, which is delicious, in the fridge and mix with seltzer tomorrow.