The first bite of a ripe peach is the first bite of summer. I spend May and June in anticipation of the season's first peach, hovering around food stalls, smelling the early batches for the perfume that signals ripeness.
I usually have to wait. Peaches don't come into season until July in most parts of the country, and they are a fruit that needs to be bought locally. They don't ripen off the tree (they will grow softer, but their sugar content, which is what makes them sweet and juicy, won't rise once picked) and ripe peaches are too fragile to be transported long distances. When checking for ripeness, ignore the red blush and look at the background color: it should golden, without a hint of green. A peach that has a deep red blush against a greenish or pale yellow skin has been picked too soon. Peaches should have a little give without being mushy, and, of course, should not have bruises, dark spots, or shriveled skin. A peach with no smell is a bad peach.
Be adventurous about peach varieties. White peaches, which have similar skins to yellow peaches but have white flesh, are more fragrant than yellows. I fed my fiance the first white peach he ever tasted and believe that his joy at its flavor played heavily into his decision to marry me.
If peaches are super-ripe, put them in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, but eat them within a few days. If they are fragrant but very firm, you can soften them at room temperature. While there is nothing to compare to a raw, ripe peach, if you find yourself with a batch that's underripe, try poaching, grilling, or making a pie. When looking for flavors to combine with peaches, remember cream, coconut, and mint. And don't forget a napkin to catch the dribble.
Grilled Peaches with Rum Whipped Cream (serves four)
This is a wonderfully elegant way of ending a barbecue, as well as being extremely easy.
4 large peaches
1 cup whipping cream
1 1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoon rum
Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks, then add the sugar and rum and whip until stiff. Slice the peaches so that the thickest point of the slice is about an inch thick (if they are thinner they can be difficult to manipulate on the grill). If you've just grilled dinner, use some water and a metal brush to wash off the grill -- but don't worry about getting it perfectly clean unless you've just grilled a strong-smelling fish. Grill the peaches, covered, until one side is slightly blackened (this takes about ten minutes, but may be faster depending on how hot your grill is). Serve the peaches with whipped cream.
The basic pie dough recipe is taken from The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker; Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc; Indianapolis 1931.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup shortening
2 tablespoons chilled butter
4 tablespoons water
Sift the flour and salt together. Combine the shortening and butter. Cut half of the shortening into the flour mixture with a pastry blender, or work it in lightly with the tips of your fingers until it has the texture of cornmeal. Cut the remaining half coarsely into the dough until it is pea size. Sprinkle the dough with the water. Blend ingredients lightly with a fork, allowing the moisture to spread. If needed to hold the ingredients together, add 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon more water. When you can form a ball with the dough, stop handling it. Roll out the dough and place it on a cookie tin, mounding up the sides for a crust.
3 tablespoons sweetened coconut flakes
4-5 cups sliced peaches
2 teaspoons sugar
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Toss the peaches with the sugar and let sit for about ten minutes. Sprinkle the coconut evenly on the rolled-out pie dough, pressing it into the crust. Arrange the peaches in a single layer on the crust. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and peaches are soft and oozing juice.