The first time I had peach melba was during a weekend trip to New Orleans with some girlfriends while I was still in college. Our second night in town had taken an unexpected turn, and somehow we found ourselves sitting in a very fancy restaurant surrounded by men in suits and women in evening gowns. I have no idea how we got into that chandeliered dining room, a bunch of kids in jeans with necks draped in beads. The guys whom dragged us there--we met them on the street an hour earlier--ordered oysters Rockefeller, and steaks, and big, thick chops, but my friends and I had already eaten dinner.
I was pretty drunk and wanted to be sociable, so I skimmed the dessert menu and came upon peach melba. I only had a vague idea of what it was, but what the hell. It sounded appropriate. A old fashioned dessert in an old fashioned dining room. A tuxedoed waiter presented me with a little bowl containing half of a peach topped with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of bright red sauce. I poked around the peach with my spoon and found a slice of cake hidden underneath. It was delicious.
I never ordered peach melba again or even thought about it until recently, when I was trying to figure out what to make my friend Jamie for dessert. I've been eating New Jersey peaches from the farmers' market like a maniac this summer and wanted to make something with them instead of just eating them straight out of the fruit bowl. But I didn't want to turn on the oven, causing my mind to wander to peach melba.
My version didn't involve pound cake or grenadine syrup. Summer peaches and raspberries are perfect as-is and I wanted a dessert that really let the fruit shine. I found a very simple Nigella Lawson recipe and a more complicated version from Gourmet and decided to combine ideas from both. First, I poached halved peaches in vanilla-infused simple syrup--which can be bottled and saved to sweeten iced tea or cocktails, or make homemade peach-vanilla soda. (Highly recommended.)
While the peaches cooled, I made a raspberry syrup by cooking down raspberries in a little water and sugar. I added a squeeze of lemon at the end, then pureed and strained the liquid, making a lovely seed-free sauce that thickened up naturally in the refrigerator.
When it was time for dessert, all I had to do was top the peach halves with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzle the sauce on top. The result was so simple and lovely--the full, ripe flavor of the season. It was not the same dessert that I ate in New Orleans, but that night was more about atmosphere than taste memories.
(Serves four people)
For the peaches:
2 large peaches, halved, unpeeled (make sure they are unbruised and firm yet ripe)
2 cups water
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, scored
For the raspberry sauce:
12 oz. raspberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
juice of 1/2 lemon
Vanilla ice cream
To poach the peaches, combine the sugar, water, and vanilla bean in a large, deep skillet and heat to medium-high. Stir the sugar until it is dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and let it come to a simmer. Add the peaches, cut side down. Cook them for about five minutes on each side, then turn off the heat and let them cool in the pan. When they are cool enough to handle, gently remove the skin, and pits, if you did not already remove them. Discard the vanilla bean and reserve the syrup in an air-tight container.
Make the syrup by combining all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and boil for two minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and let cool. When cool, puree in a food processor until smooth, then strain out the seeds using a fine mesh sieve. Reserve the sauce in a jar and refrigerate for at least one hour.
To serve, place one peach half in a bowl and top with ice cream and raspberry sauce.