In Season: Berries and Peaches

July 31, 2012.

Many things are the embodiment of summer to me, so it’s difficult to say this fruit or that vegetable is my favorite one of the summer. But ranked closely behind a perfectly ripe juicy tomato are perfectly ripe juicy berries and run-down-my-arm juicy peaches that I can smell a room away. Don’t you agree? And right now, those berries and peaches are in season and just waiting to be the main ingredient in cobblers, crumbles, pies, cakes, muffins, you name it.

I could barely get home the pint of blueberries I picked up from Phil at his Willow Branch Farm’s stand at the St. Michaels farmer’s market because my hand kept reaching into the container for just…one…more. These blueberries actually tasted like blueberries, the blueberries I remember from the u-pick place in Indiana my mom and I would go to. It had been a very long time since I had a blueberry that tasted like that. With these beauties from Phil, I naturally thought, “Muffins!” I upgraded this blueberry muffin recipe from the Williams-Sonoma Muffins cookbook by tossing in blackberries I got from him as well. Nothing fancy or complicated, but they sure tasted like a homemade berry muffin should and my friend Jeannie smiled ear-to-ear when I dropped off at her house some still warm ones. Frozen and subsequently reheated, they were still a delight. My only complaint about the recipe is I wish the crumbly topping and the muffin itself had browned a bit more. I think the added crunch would have made a nice difference. Maybe increase the heat slightly next time or bake them on a higher shelf? Either way, I think the recipe is a good basic one that would perform well if you experimented with other berries or fruits.

With the local Caroline County peaches I picked up, I wanted to bake something out of the ordinary – no peach pie, no peach cobbler, no peach Melba. All delicious, to be sure, but I wanted to make something different, and it needed to be special in its own way. As it turns out, I had been asked to make the birthday cake for the 15th birthday celebration at the St. Michaels farmers’ market. My friend Cathy had given me the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook by The Fabulous Beekman Boys and I thought, “Ah ha!” Really, who better to come up with a unique twist on using peaches in a dessert than two gay gentleman who have parlayed restoring an historic farm estate in upstate New York into a wildly successful television series, a line of goat milk soaps, cheese products and a cookbook? Turns out my instinct was right on. Buttery Peach Cake, anyone? This cake is right up my baking alley: old-fashioned, uncomplicated and seasonal. It’s an interesting cake, too, as the peaches go on the bottom and the batter goes on top.The cake itself is moist (and buttery!) and the ginger and cardamom spices on the peach slices are an unexpected treat for the tastebuds.

The review. First off, patrons of the farmers’ market were offered little bites of the cake and most of the comments I heard sounded like “Delicious!” or “Yum!” or “Different!” Phew. I really didn’t want to be remembered as the volunteer who brought a crappy birthday cake to the market’s well-attended 15th birthday celebration. Second, this cake scales very well (I made two cakes – one a single recipe and one a double recipe). Third, although not complicated, it’s a bit time consuming given steps like first blanching the peaches in hot water to help remove the skins. Fourth, the cake (even the single recipe), took close to an hour or so to bake – almost double the time indicated in the recipe – and I had to cover it about halfway through to avoid overbrowning the top. (And about that, don’t make the mistake I did and get impatient and take off the foil to check it while it’s still baking. Let’s just say that in lieu of a cake skin graft, strategically placed homemade whipped cream provided the necessary cover and distraction.) Finally, the Beekman Boys suggest eating the cake right from the pan once it’s cooled (I love the mental picture of a bunch of friends just sitting around after dinner, forks in hand, snarfing away on this cake), but I made it a day in advance, refrigerated it, then let it come to room temperature before serving and it still got rave reviews.

Whether you’re inspired by these recipes or some of your own, now’s the time to enjoy fresh, local berries and peaches. But, hurry, before they’re gone.