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I pity the man who can travel from Dan to Beersheba, and say, “‘Tis all barren”: and so it is: and so is all the world to him who will not cultivate the fruits it offers. -Sterne (A Sentimental Journey) via George Eliot (Daniel Deronda)

 

During the last week of July, with the soundtrack of the Democratic convention in the background, I peeled, pitted and chopped 25 pounds of peaches. I realize that this sentence would be infinitely more romantic if I were in possession of a peach tree that was producing an abundance of fruit. But, rather than representing a bucolic ideal of going out to my little yard to pluck fruit from a tree’s branches, the peaches that I worked with in late July were procured the “old-fashioned way”– by calling the local farm from which we also get a CSA box and ordering a half-bushel for pickup. Clearly, there are moments when I have to acknowledge that capitalism has its advantages.

When I told the Greek about the order I had placed, his first thought, beyond the obvious question of why a family of two would need so many peaches, was peach pie. An obliging wife, I honored his request, although I had bigger, if not equally sugary, plans for the surplus of peaches that I had brought upon myself: I wanted to preserve them; to fill the cupboards with jar upon jar of glistening summer fruit; to prepare for the fact that, come January, I knew I would be craving the sweetness of summer. If anything could channel that, at least out of the fruit that was still readily available on the east coast (both the cherries and strawberries had come and gone while we were in Europe, and I’m not sure the apricots ever arrived), it would be peaches.
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I also had an ulterior motive. After a summer of being on the go and a solid eight months of being in wedding planning mode, I felt the need to undertake a kitchen project and engage in a little self-therapy. While it may sound a little odd, for me, preserving has become intertwined with self-care and contemplative peace and quiet. I suspect this connection is largely the result of my last semester of teaching R&C when, after a particularly bad meeting with a student who used to visit my office hours and cry and who even threatened to report me to the department for “unfair grading practices” (mind you, this was because she was getting an A-; I’m sad to say that, even now, the accusation still rankles), I took refuge at Mrs. Dalloway’s, where I promptly fell under the spell of Diana Henry’s beautiful volume on preserving, Salt Sugar Smoke. Or maybe it is also because, in the year after I filed my dissertation, I worked on the jam blog, preserved tomatoes, oranges, strawberries and pounds upon pounds of apples, and even worked in the Preserves category at the Good Food Awards. Given this history, preserving can’t help but suggest some level of freedom to me, even though I am the first to admit that it is curious that an act that suggests an amalgam of transformation and suspension, of capturing the fruit in its best form, would also be closely connected in my mind with freedom–especially when you also consider the sheer effort that it takes to prepare the fruit and stir (and stir and stir) it over a hot stove.
It may be that my affinity for making jam and jelly will never make sense, which, in and of itself, might underscore the sincerity of the attraction. Regardless of what compels me, I am always eager to experiment with new recipes and ingredients, even if I generally believe that recipes aren’t really required, as long as you have a good food scale, jars and patience. This is why, when I saw that Domenica Marchetti, whose many “Glorious” cookbooks on Italy have long had pride of place in my kitchen–her tomato marmalade and baked Delicata squash with cream from The Glorious Vegetables of Italy are still favorites of mine–was coming out with a book on preserving the Italian way, I became extremely excited. And not just because I knew that I would learn from Domenica’s research and authority, but also because, given my own Italian(-American) roots, this book would take me one step closer to understanding how my ancestors had lived and eaten. The book, on all accounts, is a success, both beautifully photographed and full of food–jam, liqueurs and sauces–that you can’t help but want to make and eat, even if some recipes like garlic, cheese and wine sausage amount to day-long projects.

Although my eyes widened at the possibilities of Coffee Cream Liqueur, Brandied Chestnut Cream Jam and Oil-Preserved Butternut Squash with Mint, at this particular moment, I knew I could only have eyes for recipes involving peaches. Amongst those, while the choice was not easy and the peaches more than plentiful, I opted for the Peach and Almond Conserva with Marsala rather than the Peaches in Grappa-Spiked Syrup. I had never made a conserva before, nor was I sure that I even knew what constituted one; Domenica, however, explains the differences between different types of preserves in the introduction to the chapter on sweet jams and jellies: “Conserves are jams to which dried fruits and/or nuts have been added. They are extra-thick and delicious with cheese as an appetizer or with roast meats.” The addition of nuts, in fact, was what had first caught my attention with this recipe; I liked the sound of a textured preserve, of something that would have a little crunch and more substance than the average jam (conserva is texturally not that different from quince paste, except for the latter’s lack of nuts). I was also intrigued by the presence of Marsala, a dark amber Sicilian wine fortified with brandy or grape spirits that is famous for being paired with chicken, which promised to round off the tart sweetness of the peaches.

The Marsala made for a prettily colored jam, transforming the soft orange of the peaches into a tawny shade of saffron. In part, the dark color of the preserves stems not only from the wine, but also from the not insubstantial cooking time. Although simple to make, this conserva requires about an hour of active stove-top stirring, which may seem like a long time, but is ultimately a small price to pay for several jars of a thick, almond-studded spread flecked with vanilla bean seeds. Since late July, I’ve been eating this on toast with good salted butter for breakfast, or on crackers with Pecorino or Manchego cheese for a snack. The one downside is that I know that the crunchiness of the almonds won’t last. But since I also doubt that the conserva will last beyond the beginning of fall, I may just win this particular race against time.

Even if not, with each new season I’m more than certain that I’ll have cause to use this book again and again.

Peach and Almond Conserva with Marsala

Yields 4-5 half-pint (8-ounce) jars
Slightly adapted from Domenica Marchetti’s Preserving Italy

While I generally followed Domenica’s instructions to the letter, I did make a few small changes to the recipe, which were largely based on what I had in my pantry. For example, I used a sweet Marsala instead of the dry variety; I had thought that this would require me to reduce the sugar in the recipe by about 100-150 grams, but upon tasting the Marsala I had bought, it didn’t strike me as overly sweet–especially considering that my peaches were under-ripe and fairly tart. The flavor and sweetness will vary according to the brand, so if you make this and also choose to use a sweet Marsala, be sure to taste your wine.

Domenica’s recipe calls for either vanilla sugar or regular sugar. Although I do keep a jar of sugar in the cupboard with a few leftover vanilla beans in it, I had had to buy a new bag of sugar for the express purpose of making these (and the other two batches I made that week) preserves. Because it didn’t have time to absorb the flavor of the vanilla, I simply added the vanilla bean to the preserves as they cooked and then removed it before ladling it into jars (I then let it dry out and added it to the full jar of sugar in the cupboard).

3 pounds (1.4 kg) peaches (under-ripe or just ripe are preferable, as are the freestone variety; don’t try to make this with overripe fruit)
2 cups (400 g) vanilla sugar or regular sugar
1 lemon, juiced
1 vanilla bean, with its seeds scraped out
1/2 cup (118 g) sweet Marsala wine
1 cup (100 g) sliced almonds, lightly toasted

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a cookie sheet with either a Silpat or parchment paper, then spread the almonds out onto the baking dish. Bake the almonds for 7-10 minutes, or until lightly golden. Remove from the oven and let cool.

Lower the oven temperature to 250 F and place your jars on a cookie sheet. When the oven has reached 250 F, put the cookie sheet in the oven.

As you bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat, prepare an ice bath near the stove. Then, using a sharp knife, put an x in the bottom of each peach. When the water is ready, carefully add the peaches in batches. Blanch for 2-3 minutes to loosen the skins, then remove the peaches with a slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice bath. After a minute, drain the peaches in a colander in the sink. Repeat this process (most likely, 2-3 more times) until all of the peaches have been blanched.

Peel the peaches and pit them, then cut them into quarters. Place the peaches in a heavy-bottomed saucepan (or Dutch oven) or copper preserving pot and mash them with a heavy wooden spoon or
potato masher. If the peaches aren’t completely mashed, this is okay, as they can be mashed more as they cook down. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice, then add the vanilla bean seeds and the pod.

Turn the heat onto medium low and stir until the sugar is fully dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. Continue to let the mixture simmer, stirring often, until the its color has darkened and it has started to thicken. This should take 20-30 minutes. Skim any scum that forms as the mixture bubbles.

Add the Marsala and continue to boil for about 30 minutes, or until the mixture has reached 220 F or passes the freezer/wrinkle test (this test involves placing several small plates–I use soy sauce bowls–in the freezer and testing the  preserves’ consistency by placing a small spoonful onto a plate. You then put the plate back into the freezer for 3-5 minutes and, upon removing it again, test the preserves by poking it with your finger; if it wrinkles, it is ready, whereas, if it runs, it needs to be heated and tested again. It’s essential that the preserves be taken off of the hot burner while you do this, otherwise there is the danger of overcooking it). As a conserva is a thicker preserve than a jam, it should not only appear glossy, but should also have reduced considerably in the pan and should be so thick that you can scrape a path along the bottom of the pan with a silicone spatula. Of course, if you prefer your preserves on the softer side, you can remove it when it just barely passes the wrinkle test; making preserves requires a certain amount of intuition, know-how and also acknowledgement of your own preferences.

When the conserva is done cooking, turn off the heat and, using a silicone spatula, stir in the toasted almonds.

Remove the sterilized jars from the oven and ladle the conserva into the jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace. Using a cake tester, stir the contents of each jar to remove air bubbles. If any of the preserves spills on the lid, wipe it off using a clean damp cloth before screwing on the lids.

Place the jars onto a cookie sheet and put them in the oven at 250 F for 30 minutes. Once done, place the cookie sheet on a rack to cool. If the jars have sealed properly, you will hear a popping sound as they cool. Keep in mind that, even if you don’t hear a popping sound, the jars might have sealed anyway; just look to see if the lid is concave (or curled down in the center).  Once upon, keep the conserva in the refrigerator. Domenica says that this is best enjoyed quickly as the almonds become less crisp and the flavor of the Marsala less pronounced the longer it sits.

2 thoughts on “A Glut of Peaches

  1. I love this so much! 25 pounds of peaches is (are?) the stuff dreams are made of. I love the idea of a conserva too, since you know I am all about texture and crunch! It is a life goal of mine to someday make quince paste…a girl can dream! Also, three cheers for Daniel Deronda! I fear that the Russian book club has fallen by the wayside (my fault!), but maybe a classics book club? Or some sort of read around the world project? I can't help it, my organizational qualities apparently all lie in the realm of reading planning! XOXOXO

  2. You would love this stuff! Perhaps I will remember to bring a jar for you to the PA wedding. 🙂

    And you should totally make quince paste; it's not hard, so much as time consuming. The real problem is that it is a pain to both core and peel the quince (they are not an easy fruit!) and then there is just so much stirring…But you can also make it in the oven, letting it slowly dry out. Simple and easy!

    I don't think the failure of the Russian book club is your fault; I think we are both responsible. 🙂 I barely had time to read in the spring; I started reading “My Struggle” in late April and didn't finish until we were flying back to Greece from our honeymoon. But, yes, we should do some kind of book club; that would be so much fun. And I like the idea of classics, as I've been trying to read more of them lately.

    xo

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