Originally published on June 4, 2008
Think of fresh Hill Country peaches, and you can almost feel the juice trickling down your chin.
Well, grab some napkins, 'cause peaches are here.
The first batch popped up at local farmers markets several weeks ago, but June marks the height of the season in Central Texas, specifically Gillespie County, where about a third of the state's peaches are grown.
The county's sandy soil and cooler climate are ideal conditions for the production of high-quality peaches, so long as a late frost or hail storm doesn't get them first.
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This year's peach crop is not as abundant as last, says Sue Psencik, who runs Psencik Farm east of Fredericksburg with her husband, Bill. "Excess rainfall last year and the drought this year has caused stress on all the peach trees in the area," she says. "However, the sunshine and the heat have produced really sweet peaches. There may be fewer, but they are much tastier."
The capital of peach country is Stonewall, where peach-lovers gather each year for the Peach Jamboree. This year's event, which will include a parade, peach contests and rodeo, is June 19-21 in the town just east of Fredericksburg.
There are dozens of varieties of peaches grown in Central Texas, with some ripening earlier in the season than others. Many farmers grow several kinds so as to have tasty fresh peaches available for purchase from the beginning of May to August.
If you've already been enjoying local peaches, you were probably munching on "Bicentennial" or "Flavor Rich," but keep your eyes peeled for "Harvester" and "Majestic" peaches, which should be out in the next few weeks.
Keep in mind when selecting peaches the difference between the cling and freestone types. The flesh of cling peaches, which are usually the first peaches to ripen in the season, is attached to the pit, while freestones, which ripen toward the middle of June and in July, have a pit that's easily removable from the flesh.
If you make it to the Hill Country to pick peaches, be sure to call ahead for availability. A matter of days can separate an orchard full of fresh fruit just begging to be plucked and a picked-over orchard whose other varieties are still weeks from ripening.
If you're choosing a basket at a farmers market or grocery store, use your nose to find the sweet, ripe ones. Peaches don't ripen much after they've been picked and they won't last more than a week in the refrigerator, so leave out the ones you want to eat now, and wash and cut up the others to freeze for later.
Now, what to do with those heavenly peaches? Jams, cobblers and even smoothies are grand, but for me it's all about the pie. And I promise this column won't be just all stories of my grandmother's incredible cooking, but it would be baking betrayal not to share her peach pie recipe.
This is my favorite of her pies, and she always makes one for me when I visit my hometown, but I'd never seen her actually put the thing together.
So when my grandmother and mother were both in town last week, we made a pie using fresh peaches I bought from a roadside farm stand in Oak Hill.
My grandmother Carolyn Cook started by sifting the flour for her never-fail pie crust, which uses shortening instead of butter, while my mom and I peeled and sliced a large basket of peaches.
"You know, I don't do this at home," my grandmother said of the exact measuring. "I've always done it by guess and by gosh. Hardly anybody measured anything back then."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the exact measuring, this particular pie crust didn't turn out exactly as she'd hoped. After she rolled out the dough circles, they fell apart when she picked them up to assemble the pie. Like a true cook, she didn't throw her hands up in despair, but instead pieced the dough back together like a puzzle for both the bottom and top crusts.
As for the filling, the smaller peaches I'd bought added up on the shy end of the 4 cups required for the filling, so my grandmother added a half cup of blackberries and raspberries, which added a nice color and tartness to the final pie.
With this improvisational attitude, she can use this same recipe to make just about any fruit pie, just as long as the total amount of fruit equals about 4 cups and the amount of sugar is adjusted to taste.
The pie went in the oven for about an hour, and when it came out, it might not have looked flawless, but it sure tasted that way.
I don't know about you, but I prefer a pieced-together pie crust that is savory, light and flaky than one that looks perfect but tastes like prepared crusts.
It's the same way with peaches themselves. The small, dark, less-than-perfectly round ones we used for this pie were much tastier than the picture-perfect peaches I bought at the grocery store earlier this year.
Perfection, just as in life, isn't the goal in the kitchen.
And that's the great thing about a good pie. Unless you burn it, there's little you can do to it that a good dollop of ice cream can't fix.
This recipe calls for 4 cups of fresh peaches, but feel free to combine blackberries, strawberries or any other fruit, so long as the total amount of fruit is about 4 cups. Also, good peaches contain lots of juice, so my grandmother recommends a deep-dish or 10-inch pie pan for this recipe. She also puts a baking sheet on the rack below the pie to catch any juice that bubbles over. The dough makes four crusts, so if you use two crusts for one pie, you can freeze the rest of the dough in a ball.
3 cups sifted flour
1 1/2 cup shortening
1/3 cup water
1 Tbsp. vinegar
pinch of salt
4 cups sliced peaches
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. corn starch
sugar to taste
In a large bowl, cut the shortening into the flour with a fork or pastry blender (also known as a pastry cutter). In another bowl, mix egg, water, vinegar and salt. Slowly add the wet ingredients to the flour and shortening, and mix using your hands or a pastry blender. Once combined, refrigerate for one hour.
For filling: Slice peaches and add lemon juice to preserve color. Mix in corn starch. Start with a few tablespoons of sugar and keep adding until filling reaches desired sweetness.
Remove dough from refrigerator and divide into quarters. On a floured surface or pastry sheet, roll out dough into four 1/4-inch thick circles. Place one circle on the bottom of pie pan. Pour fruit filling over dough. Place another dough circle on top of filling, pinching the edges shut and cutting a few holes in the top to allow steam to escape. Bake in 375-degree oven for about 45 minutes or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbly.
- Carolyn Cook