Eric Akis: Peach Melba — a dessert fit for a star

Decadent dessert a sweet way to serve in-season stone fruit

Eric Akis

B.C. peaches are in season and if the late renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier was alive and living here he’d surely be cooking with them. In fact, The Escoffier Cookbook: And Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery for Connoisseurs, Chefs, ­Epicures, offers 12 different preparations.

Among them is one of Escoffier’s most famous dishes, pêche Melba, peach Melba, in English. It’s a fairly simple dessert where sugar-sweetened, skinned peach halves are set on vanilla ice cream and topped with raspberry puree. With ripe, juicy peaches and ruby red raspberries, Escoffier wisely chose to let their flavour shine by not muddling it with myriad ingredients.

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Escoffier created the first ­version of this dessert while working as the chef at London’s Savoy Hotel during the late 1890s. During that time Australian opera singer Nellie Melba came to London, performed at Covent Garden, and often dined at the Savoy.

Escoffier and Melba became acquainted and lore suggests that one day she sent him tickets to see her in the Wagner opera Lohengrin, whose set featured a swan-shaped boat.

Escoffier must have enjoyed her performance because the following evening when she came for dinner he created a special dessert for her. To make it, vanilla ice cream was set in a silver-serving dish and topped with fresh peaches. The silver-serving dish was then perched atop a swan carved from ice and Escoffier called his creation pecheau cygne, “peach with a swan,” in English.

When Escoffier left the Savoy and began working at London’s Ritz Carlton he tweaked the dish by also topping the peaches and ice cream with raspberry purée. He also renamed it, calling it — you guessed it — peach Melba.

The dessert was a hit and eventually other chefs around the world began serving it. That, in turn, explains why you now see variations on how peach Melba is made, especially with how the peaches are prepared.

For example, some recipes ask you to blanch, skin, half, pit and then cook the peach halves in simple syrup (sugar dissolved in water).Others ask you to cook halved, pitted peaches in simple syrup and then skin them. And yet others, particularly American cookbooks in the 1960s, go the convenience route and tell you to use packed-in-syrup canned peach halves.

However, in The History Kitchen section of the PBS ­website, pbs.org, they’ve posted what screenwriter/food historian Tori Avey says is the original peach Melba recipe, Escoffier’s words translated from French.

In this case, the peaches are quickly blanched in boiling water, cooled, skinned, halved and pitted. If desired, at this point you can soak the peach halves 10 minutes in acidulated water to help them from discolouring. Now, instead of poaching the peach halves in simple syrup, they are simple sprinkled with sugar, allowed to sit awhile and as they do the sugar dissolves and turns syrupy. The peaches are then served on ice cream and topped with raspberry puree. You also have the options to sprinkle the peach Melba with toasted almonds.

My recipe is similar in style, except I decided to halve the peaches and remove the pits before blanching them and removing the skins. I did that because to make peach Melba you need to use ripe peaches. And when you halve and pit them after they’ve been blanched, you can damage the tender flesh.

Neatly halving and pitting peaches is also much easier if you use freestone peaches. As their name suggests, they have flesh that does not cling tightly to the stone, unlike clingstone peaches, that have flesh that does.

If you bought unripe peaches, they’ll eventually become ripe if you leave them out a room temperature. But you can speed up the process by placing them in a single layer in a paper bag. Seal the bag and leave it at room ­temperature for a day or more and ethylene gas the fruit gives off will quicken the ripening process. To speed it up even more, also put an apple in the bag with the peaches, as it has more ethylene gas than peaches and will further hasten the process.

Peach Melba

Here’s my version of the perfect-for-late-summer dessert that famed French chef Auguste Escoffier invented more than 120 years ago. You’ll need ripe peaches for this. So, plan ahead and make sure the peaches you have will be ripe by the time you make and serve the peach Melba.

Preparation time: 60 minutes

Cooking time: One to two minutes

Makes: four servings

1 1/3 cups fresh or frozen (thawed) raspberries (see Note)

1/3 cup water

1/4 cup icing sugar, or to taste (see Eric options)

4 ripe, small to medium, freestone peaches

1 Tbsp lemon juice

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

8 tsp granulated sugar

• vanilla ice cream, to taste

4 mint sprigs

Place the raspberries, water and icing sugar in a food processor or blender, or in the cup that came your immersion (hand) blender. Puree the raspberries. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl, using a small whisk to whisk and press out as much liquid as you can. Cover this raspberry puree and refrigerate until needed.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cut each peach in half and remove the stones. Add the peach halves to the water and cook one minute, or until the skins easily slip off the peaches.

Lift peaches out of the boiling water, set on a large plate and cool until safe enough to handle. Now carefully pull off the skins.

Set peaches in 13- x 9-inch dish, drizzle with the lemon juice and vanilla, and turn to coat. Set peaches cut side up. Sprinkle the top of each peach half with 1 tsp of granulated sugar. Cover peaches and refrigerate one hour. Turn each peach over and let sit one hour more, or until you’re ready to make the Peach Melba. (The raspberry puree and peaches can be prepared to this point many hours in advance of serving.)

When ready to serve, scoop some vanilla ice cream into each of four serving dishes (see Eric’s options). Set two peach halves, curved-side-up, and some of the syrup around them, on top of the ice cream in each bowl. Top peaches with raspberry puree, garnish with mint sprigs, and serve.

Note: If using frozen raspberries, measure them before thawing. After thawing, if there’s a lot of liquid around them, reduce the amount of water you add to the puree.

Eric’s options: Instead of icing sugar, sweeten the raspberry puree with honey, to taste. For added richness, you could also top the peach Melba with toasted, sliced or slivered almonds, to taste. You could scoop the ice cream into the serving dishes an hour or two before serving the peach Melba. After doing so, set the dishes in the freezer and keep there until ready to top with the peaches and raspberry puree.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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