There is a long and florid history of culinary innovation through misadventure, or to put it more brutally – Those ‘How the hell am I gonna make this fsck-up taste good ’ type dishes. And the tales of many recipes such as these have now passed into virtual cookery folklore.
Take jiaozi, those addictive, crispy-based northern Chinese dumplings that often trade as potstickers. This particular tale has done the rounds for years and years, and I suspect that it can be found lurking in cuisines other than Chinese as well. Along with being one of the finest cooks in China, the chief dumpling chef to the Imperial Chinese Court was also an incorrigible elbow-bender. In fact, he was so drunk when one day preparing the emperor’s boiled dumplings that he allowed the water to boil away and the pastry to burn on the bottom of the pot. Of course when the blackened dim sum were served forth, the emperor was incensed, and the sozzled chef’s mortality was discussed in somewhat flippantly dire terms. Luckily, the chef’s son was a good man in a tight spot, quickly bursting into the court to personally introduce his father’s greatest creation yet! ‘Pot sticker dumplings’. Nice story? Sure. But did it really happen? Hmm… I’m kinda doubtful.
Here is another old chestnut – Roquefort cheese. Roquefort is a stunningly flavoured French blue mould cheese crafted from ewe’s milk. The time-honoured fable in this case is a romantic one indeed. Centuries ago, a young shepherd from the south of what is now France sat down to eat his humble lunch of fruit, bread and fresh sheep milk curds. Inclement weather forced him into a cave to finish his repast, only to be again interrupted when his flock was disturbed. He left behind his lunch and promptly forgot all about it. Months later, when passing nearby the cave, he entered to see what had become of his forgotten meal. Of course, it had rotted and become covered in mould. Any sane soul would have left the fuzzy, stinking, blue-hued cheese alone, but our shepherd was an intrepid chap. A combination of low temperature, high humidity and naturally present bacteria meant that instead of tasting a rancid mess, our shepherd had created one of the most enduring cheese styles in history. Once again, I love the story, but… really.
Yeah, OK sneff, this is all well and good,
but what the hell does it have to do with peach ice cream?
Well, just like our drunkard dumpling chef and forgetful shepherd boy, a few weeks ago on New Year’s Eve, I had my own culinary disaster. And luckily, my disaster turned out pretty damn delicious as well.
One of the desserts we served on NYE was a softly poached white peach with mascarpone gelato and pistachio praline. I thought it sounded pretty nice, but clearly our guests didn’t agree. They stayed away from the dish in droves. Waking up on January the 1st, I not only had a hall of famer hangover, I was also left with 2 dozen poached white peaches. Poached peaches are stored refrigerated in their own poaching liquid, and they keep beautifully this way – shiny, firm and blushed with pink - for about 5 or so days. They will still be OK to eat for another 3 weeks after that, but slowly they will soften and lose their lustre. As the days wore on, it became plainly evident that I could no longer sell these peaches as whole poached fruit, and the depressing possibility of throwing away all those lovely peaches started to seem like my only option.
I was riding the bus when the solution hit me. Recently I had seen a recipe for dried blueberry ice cream that sounded pretty lush. The idea of dried peaches seemed like a sound one, but I felt there was still room for improvement. I only had a few bus stops before I arrived at work and I wanted this matter resolved, so I needed to think nimbly. Eureka! I wouldn't dry them; I'd candy them.
Candied peaches are a slight misnomer, but they certainly sound a lot better than simply dried peaches, which carries a certain negative connotation of health food stores and duodenum cleansing diets. I cut each peach into small slivers and dipped them into a hot, dense sugar syrup. I then lifted these slices onto a wire rack and left them in a low oven for hours and hours, until they had shrunk a little, deepened in colour and took on an intensely rich flavour. They became the distilled essence of the original fruit – but most importantly they weren’t dried out at all, instead they were softly sticky and just a tiny bit chewy.
Next I made a standard regulation ice cream, but instead of simply using milk and cream, I substituted a proportion with the sweetly pink poaching liquid left over from the peaches, which gently scented and flavoured the iced treat with the lushness of summer peaches. Just as the ice cream was finished churning I folded through a generous handful of finely chopped candied peaches. Once this ice cream is fully set, the tiny pieces of peach firm up and become lusciously chewy. Mini-explosions of intense stone fruit flavour all wrapped up in a smooth, velvety peach-scented ice cream. Oh man... never has a stuff up tasted so friggin’ good.
Now us chefs are a randy and wily bunch who are constantly flirting with any waitresses or bar staff that may be unlucky enough to come our way. Tonight there were 3 extraordinarily comely bartendresses working downstairs at the restaurant. My smooth-talkin’ chef-colleague, the über-hip JD, suggested that we send down some of this ice cream to try and break the ice, so to speak. I didn’t need any further persuasion. Minutes later, I bounded down the stairs bearing gifts; 3 tiny scoops of freshly churned sticky peach ice cream, paired with a slice of crisp almond biscotti for the 3 beautiful ladies. Bar staff are always happy to take delivery of any food from the kitchen, but this streetwise bunch were even more chuffed than usual – they went into serious ‘drool ’ mode. This led me to 2 conclusions. Firstly, the ice cream was indeed a winner, and more importantly, the troika of young lovelies were impressed enough to possibly accompany myself and JD out on the town once we had all finished work. Sadly, instead of imbibing with svelte young ladies, I am instead now sitting here telling you the tale. Perhaps it was my delivery? (Or my devilry?) Oh well, at least the ice cream turned out well.
Wanna make some? Got an ice cream churner? Got some peaches? Then here’s how.
For the candied peaches
First off, poach the peaches following the directions found here, but don’t reduce the syrup as directed in that recipe. Once cooled and peeled, you can store the peaches covered with the syrup in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
Remove the peaches from the syrup and cut vertically into quarters, then cut each quarter in half. Discard the kernel. Place the syrup into a large heavy-based saucepan and simmer until only one third of the original volume remains. Keep a close eye on it and allow it to cool when done.
Preheat your oven to the very low temperature of 90 °C (200 °F). Into another, smaller saucepan, place the 250 ml of caster sugar, along with 60 ml (1/4 cup) of cold water. Stir to dissolve and set over low to medium heat. Next to the stove (or close by) set up a baking tray (or baking sheet) with a mesh wire rack set on top. Once the sugar has fully melted, is clear and is just starting to bubble, lower a few slices of peach into the syrup. If the syrup seizes and sets into large crystalline formations, you have cooked the syrup for too long. If so, pour the syrup out and start again. Next time heat the syrup more gently, and for less time. For dedicated pastry heads, you want to be well below the soft ball stage. With a fork, gently turn the peach slices over to fully coat them with the syrup, then lift out to drain on the wire rack. Continue until all the peaches are coated.
Place the tray into the low oven for 60 minutes, then check. They should be starting to darken and shrink a little, but still be soft and holding their original shape. If they are shrivelling or beginning to darken around the edges, the oven is too high and needs to be turned down. Continue cooking for another 1 – 2 hours, or until the fruit has shrunk to half its original size, is deeply coloured but not browned, is firm to touch, and is slightly chewy. Remove, cool and place into an airtight container. These should last well at room temperature for a few weeks, but I’m not yet 100% sure, as I only made them for the first time today. I’ll get back to you on this one.
Not all ovens will allow you to set such a low temperature. If so, you have a few options to work around this. If you have an old gas oven, you could dry them overnight simply using the pilot light. Alternatively, you could heat the oven to about 150 °C (300 °F), turn the oven off, and then 15 minutes later place the peaches in the oven. Leave them in the oven for at least 6 hours, or overnight. Depending on how humid your locality is, you may need to do this twice to dry them out completely. Finally, if you live in a warm and dryish climate, you could simply place the peaches in the sun for 2 – 3 days. (Mmm... Sun Dried Peach Ice Cream). Make sure to cover them with netting of some sort to keep the birds and insects out.
For the ice cream
Place the egg yolks and the 150 gm of caster sugar in a large, heat-proof bowl and whisk gently to combine. Place the milk and 250 ml of the reduced syrup into a small saucepan and bring to the simmer. The milk will separate into curds and whey – but don’t fly into a panic, as this is all part of the chosen path. As soon as the now lumpy mixture has reached the simmer, pour directly onto the yolks. Immediately start whisking so the eggs don’t curdle. The curdled milk should now once again emulsify. Rinse out the saucepan and pour the egg yolk mixture back in. Set over gentle heat and stir constantly until the liquid has thickened and resembles custard. Strain into a clean bowl and immediately add the cream. Stir and set aside to cool.
Once fully cooled, pour the custard into your ice cream machine and start churning. While the ice cream churns, cut the candied peaches into small dice – a little smaller than your pinky nail. Measure out 200 ml, or 4/5 of a cup. When the ice cream is just about fully churned, loosely scatter the peach pieces directly onto the churning ice cream. Make sure that there are no clumps. While the machine is still churning, use a small spoon to distribute the candied peach dice evenly throughout the ice cream.
When fully churned, scoop the ice cream out into a clean container, cover well and place into the freezer for at least 6 hours, or overnight. When you are ready to serve, place the ice cream into the fridge for 10 minutes to soften slightly. Kept frozen, this heady and delicious ice cream should store nicely for around 4 – 6 weeks.