Peach Melba – Dessert for a Diva
I was around Bugis Village area the other day when I walked pass a fruit wholesaler which also did some retail. The shop was packed with people buying oranges and apples as offerings for the Kwan Yin Temple nearby, but my eyes were immediately drawn to one thing when I entered the shop. Sitting at the corner was a carton of peaches in a brilliant flushing red with streaks of lemony yellow, the colours of summer! I was immediately mesmerised by their sheer beauty. These turned out to be Australian white peaches, and almost at once I remembered one of the recipes I’d watched on Nigella’s “Feasts – Just Desserts” sometime back. Apart from being a “domestic goddess”, Nigella is arguably one of the world’s greatest advocate for cooking peaches. And of all her peach recipes she’s introduced in her books and programmes, one is dubbed by her as “a classic” – Peach Melba.
Pêche Melba aka Peach Melba is a delightful dessert created by the celebrated French chef Auguste Escoffier of Savoy Hotel London, in honour of Nellie Melba, the famous Australian soprano. It looks simple and elegant, yet not lacking in all that theatrical and dramatic elements. You can read more about her and her “diva-ness” and the dessert here.
Like most of her recipes, Nigella’s version of Peach Melba is incredible easy to make. The recipe uses 8 peaches and serves 8 but it can be adjusted to one’s needs.
First is to prepare the poaching stock, which is basically water, granulated sugar and a vanilla pod, halved lengthwise, seeds scrapped. This gives the peaches (and the wonderfully pink syrup as you shall soon see!) a hint of vanilla aroma, adding so much dimension to the fruit. Vanilla essence may also be used but as we all know, when one’s had his encounters with the vanilla pod, there’s basically no turning back. : )
Water, sugar, vanilla seeds and pod shell goes into a flat saucepan or skillet which has sufficient girth for all the peach halves to sit in it comfortably without overcrowding. This is important as there must be room for manovuering the peaches to turn them over. The amount of water needs to be adjusted to one’s pan size, basically to allow the peaches to be submerged into the sugary concoction by two-thirds. While the sugar solution is heating in the pan, wash the peaches and cut into halves. Do not halve the peaches too early as oxidation sets in quickly causing the creamy flesh to turn brown. Bring the vanilla syrup to a boil and lower the flame to a gentle simmer before gingerly placing the peach halves into the pan, cut side down.
Give the cut side about 2 mins in a very low simmer and then very carefully turn the peach halves over and give the other side another minute or so. Nigella’s recipe calls for a longer period of simmering but I found the texture too soft and mushy to my liking; I prefer them only very slightly cooked, retaining much of the desired fresh fruit firmness.
I read another recipe that uses “white poaching”, that is to turn off the flame and remove the cooking vessel away from the stove immediately after the peach halves are added. This supposedly prevents the fruit from overcooking and more importantly, the delicate flavours of the peaches from being destroyed by the heat.
But there’s something interesting in Nigella’s recipe which I’m more than eager to try. Most recipes I found for Peach Melba called for the fruit to be halved, pitted and skinned. But in her version, the peach halves were left skin on and even stones intact. The latter is out of sheer convenience as it is so much easier to dislodge the stones when the flesh is slightly softened from poaching. Leaving the skin on is another thing altogether. Poaching the peaches with their skin on allowed the pigments on the skin to diffuse into the flesh, imparting its rosy red exuberance onto the lush creamy yellow. What a celebration of colours it turned out to be!
While the peach halves were taken off the stove to work off the residual heat, I started to prepare the raspberry sauce, which required nothing more than blitzing about a handful of raspberries and icing sugar until smooth. Press the raspberry coulis through a tea strainer to separate the seeds from the puree.
Serve with vanilla ice-cream drizzled with raspberry coulis and a generous sprinkling of freshly pan-toasted almond slivers. It helps to chill the serving plate by leaving it in the freezer for 1 hour or so prior to serving. This helps to prevent the ice-cream from melting too quickly so that it can be enjoyed thoroughly with the peaches.
The red gaudiness from the pitted centre that bleeds into the creamy yellow flesh echoes the sanguine brilliance of the raspberry coulis.
Nigella’s Recipe was taken from here, but nothing really beats watching the Domestic Goddess at work on “Just Desserts” on “Nigella Feasts”.
(1) Selecting peaches is very important in the success of this recipe. They need to be fresh and firm. Do not use peaches that are bruised or too soft.
(2) Peaches do not store well under our tropical weather. Put in the vegetable compartment of the fridge at all times. Try to use them quickly after purchase
(3) Nigella gave each side 2-3 mins of simmering time but I found that this has two disadvantages
– The peaches become too soft and mushy
– The luxurious red of the skin leaches too much into the vanilla syrup making it a brilliant pink. Beautiful indeed yes, but it causes the peach halves to look rather drab after that.
(4) I read that white peach varieties are sweeter while yellow peaches tend to be quite tart. The latter are hence usually canned in heavy syrup while the former is eaten fresh. Canned peaches can be used to make Peach Melba of course. But I guess part of the authenticity will be lost.
(5) I omitted the lemon juice in Nigella’s recipe as the raspberries I bought are already quite tart. Moreover, the amount of raspberries stated is quite an overkill, even for 8 peaches. I used barely a dozen or so raspberries and 2-3 tablespoons of icing sugar.
(6) Straining the blended raspberries is crucial in this recipe to ensure an absolutely smooth texture for the raspberry couli. Bits of seeds stuck somewhere simply spoils the experience.
(7) Watch the peaches carefully while they are being poached to prevent them from overcooking and leaching too much of that wonderful colours into the syrup. Mine were on the stove for barely 3 mins all in all, about 1 min or so on each side. If you like softer and more mushy peaches, follow Nigella’s instructions. But I find it rather pointless as canned peaches would deliver the same texture and consistency.
(8) Do not discard the syrup! The taste of vanilla and peach combined together is ethereal! Nigella suggests freezing the syrup for future poaching but then again, how often do we make poached peaches!? I think I would use mine, together with leftover raspberry couli to make a peach version of Shirley Temple! Do let me know how you would use yours!