Before getting to the meat of today’s subject matter, I’d like to explain something– the evolution of today’s post.
I’m off to my 20th high school reunion this weekend so, naturally, the song “Reunited” by Peaches and Herb has been crowding my brain. The initial idea was to exorcise this R & B demon from my head by making a salad containing, naturally again, peaches and herbs. I thought that by taking matters into my own hands, uniting these two ingredients and then consuming them might give me some sort of edge. However, I became frustratingly uncertain as to which herb was the right Herb. Peaches might react unpleasantly to, say, marjoram or, even worse, dill. Rosemary sounded nice, but my hunch told me that herbs with feminine names wouldn’t appeal to her either. The goal here was a reunion that feels so good.
I abandoned Herb, but I kept Peaches with me. I thought about explaining where she came from (China, not Persia as her botanical name Prunus persica suggests) and how she came to whet our appetites with just a little shake of her sequined groove thing. I was surprised by both her strength and her depth– much more depth than I think your Friday morning attention span can handle.
So I decided to make Peach Melba instead.
That’s Nelly Melba in the clip above. Sadly, she’s not making her peach dish. Instead, she’s making a cake for the Duke and Duchess of York, later to be known as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. I couldn’t find any other footage of her, so this will have to do.
Born in what is now a suburb of Melbourne, Australia in 1861, Helen Porter Mitchell grew up to ditch her son-of-a-baronet husband and infant son, change her name to Nellie Melba (in honor of her hometown) and become one of the greatest– or at least most famous– sopranos in opera history. She has inspired not only the above mentioned dessert concoction, but toast, thereby making her the most eponymed woman in modern food history. Why such honors?
It wasn’t her sweet disposition. Apart from abandoning her family, she was also known as a fickle, upstaging attention-grabber. The consummate diva, when asked to answer for her own bad behavior, the words “I am Melba” always passed from her lips. That, she believed, was enough explaination. She was also given to physically shoving other performers downstage if they got in her way. She was, not surprisingly, detested by her peers.
She was, however, loved by her public. One man in particular– Auguste Escoffier– adored her.
While appearing at Covent Garden– her operatic home for more than twenty years– and residing at the Savoy Hotel where Escoffier was master chef, she sent him (possibly as a thank you for previously naming the toast in her honor) a pair of tickets to see her in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. Escoffier was so taken with her performance that he created another dish (if toast can indeed be called a dish) for her– Peche au Cygne (Peach with Swan)– peaches and vanilla ice cream served alongside a dramatic swan ice sculpture which mimicked the swan-shaped boat featured in the opera. It was not, however, called Peach Melba. He renamed the dessert a few years later, after his move to the Ritz Carlton, adding both raspberry sauce and the Melba name.
Legend has it that Melba was concerned that eating ice cream might constrict her gorgeous vocal chords, which is why I have chosen to serve the peaches below slightly warm. I know what it’s like to piss off a diva, believe me.
3 yellow peaches. Not too ripe. Freestones make life easier.
4 cups water. You may also poach the peaches in white wine. Frankly, I’d rather drink the wine
than poach with it.
2 cups sugar
2 cups raspberries (fresh or frozen). Fresh raspberries are ideal for garnishing.
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons of sugar (taste the raspberries before adding sugar. I prefer the sauce to be tart,
like la Melba herself)
Vanilla ice cream. (I’m using vanilla sorbet because I have to lose 10 pounds by tomorrow for
Some sort of wafer cookies for garnish and a little crunch.
1. Slice a shallow “x” on the bottom of each peach to facilitate peeling. Blanch the peaches in the four cups of simmering water for about one minute. Or two. Is the skin starting to peel away along the edges of the little “x”? If so, take them out and place fruit in an ice bath to cool them. Let sit until well cooled, then excoriate. Set aside.
Add sugar to the simmering water, stirring lightly to dissolve. Return the denuded peaches to the simmering syrup. Turn off the heat and walk away for a while. Some swear by slicing the peaches before poaching them. I’m not a fan– the edges of the peaches become too soft and feathery. Do so at your own risk. I like the center of the peach to have a little bit of give to it. Probably because I have teeth.
While the peaches are doing their thing, make the raspberry sauce. Place berries, 1/4 cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice into your cuisenart or what-have-you and pulse. I had some berries in the freezer and did not bother to wait until they thawed before I pureed them. I ended up making a sort of soft-serve sorbet as a result, which I let melt to become spoonable and saucy. Set aside and wash your blending apparatus immediately, if only to save yourself from flicking bits of seed stuck to the plastic with your fingernail later.
When the syrup has cooled to slightly warm, remove the peaches and slice in half, removing the stones.
In parfait glasses or whatever you have handy– vessels with pestles, flagons with dragons— spoon a little raspberry sauce on the bottom. Of the glass, please. Place one half of a peach, which should be slightly warm on top. Spoon vanilla ice cream over that, drizzle with a little more raspberry sauce. Garnish with whole raspberries and cookie. Serve immediately.
*Fun Fact* Nellie Melba died on 23 February, 1931 as a result of complications from a botched plastic surgery.