A toast to summer fruitfulness
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My Instagram feed is full of cherries, peaches, pears, plums and apricots, as Indian food bloggers snap their way through the avalanche of summer fruit tumbling down from the Himalayas. I love to see it but there’s a painful pang of longing this year—for the first time in a decade, I’m enjoying this summer bounty vicariously rather than in my local Delhi markets. I’m salivating over hashtags rather than actual crates of perfectly ripe and sweet fruit piled up in my kitchen.
This is the time we used to make our annual escape from Delhi for a brief respite from the insane heat to the cool, blue-sky mountains. As the scorched plains gave way to the foothills, one of the first signs that we’d nearly reached our little summer cottage in Kullu Valley was the line of local farmers selling their produce by the side of the road, row upon row of beautiful fruit at its absolute best.
I now live in a country that has largely forgotten the joy of seasonal abundance. Most people now shop in supermarkets rather than the roadside or in street markets. Supermarkets stock all fruit all year round, most of them fairly tasteless after having been picked when they’re severely unripe and transported hundreds, sometime thousands, of miles. Consequently, consumers, having never tasted a perfect plum or pear, no longer see what all the fuss is about.
I remember as a child on holiday in Scotland, the highlight of two weeks with our grandparents was going raspberry and strawberry picking. We would gorge on the berries till we were sick, then our mum would turn what was left into jam. I can still taste the juice of the warm fruit running down my chin.
Our seasonal pleasures are now increasingly infrequent and much more subdued. Some might say less democratic, the domain of those who can afford to source single-estate tomatoes and social media foodies swooning over British asparagus or recently foraged wild garlic. This week, I bought the first punnet of Scottish strawberries. They were a thing of beauty and deliciousness but sadly by no means universally enjoyed.
One exception to the ubiquitous tasteless soft fruits is something that arrives around now from Spain and stays until the end of summer. It’s called the doughnut peach because it’s flatter than normal varieties. For the past few years, Brits have gone crazy about them because, well, they’re just so incredibly sweet. In fact, many feel the fruits are just too good to be true and suspect the hand of genetic modification.
In the past few years, my baking with Indian summer fruit was exuberant—clafoutis, tarts, cobblers galore. These doughnut peaches seem to reflect the more modest abundances that I must perhaps get used to. But they’re no less enjoyable, the nutty butteriness of these little cakes goes well with the fruit’s top notes of almond.
Long live abundances, big and small!
Little Almond, Peach and Vanilla Cakes
Makes 12 small cakes
100g unsalted butter (not Indian white butter, use an imported French butter if possible, French salted if not)
110g icing sugar
60g ground almonds (you could also use ground hazlenuts or pistachios)
Seeds from half a vanilla pod
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
A pinch of salt
3 egg whites
2 firm small peaches
1 12-hole small (i.e. not big muffin size) cake tin. Silicon moulds are a good choice for cakes like these. If you use small rectangular tins, the result would be the French cake known as Financier.
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. First melt the butter in a small pan and heat until it turns a rich nutty brown—be careful not to let it burn. Leave to cool slightly.
Use a tablespoon of the butter to grease the tin or moulds that you’re going to bake the cakes in.
Put the tin/moulds in the freezer while you make the cake mixture.
Sieve the icing sugar and flour into a large bowl, then stir in the ground almonds, vanilla seeds, lemon zest and salt. Put the egg whites in another bowl and whisk into a soft foam. Pour the egg whites and melted butter into the flour mixture and mix well.
Slice the “cheeks” off the peaches, then cut each “cheek” into thin slices.
Divide the cake mixture between the buttered tins/silicon moulds. Top each cake with about four slices of peach.
Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until the cakes are cooked through and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Dust with icing sugar. The cakes will keep well in a tin for a day or two.
The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains. Pamela Timms tweets at @eatanddust and posts on Instagram as Eatanddust.