Retro Recipe Wednesday: Peach Melba
In my recent post about the opera diva Dame Nellie Melba, I mentioned that a dessert named after her, Peaches Melba (or Peach Melba), became very popular in the early to mid-twentieth century. The famous French chef Escoffier created it in her honor. On the PBS site The History Kitchen (what a marvelous site for history buffs with robust appetites, like me!) writer Tori Avey tells us:
“It was in London, while performing at Covent Garden, that Nellie became acquainted with Escoffier. The legendary French chef was known and respected worldwide for his innovative, imaginative dishes and ‘haute cuisine.’ During the late 1800s, Escoffier partnered with César Ritz (of Ritz Carlton fame), and made a name for himself as the head chef of the restaurants located inside the famous Ritz hotels. His food was known for being elaborate and fancy—what we might describe today as being “typically French.”
Avey goes on to say, “Nellie Melba often ate at Escoffier’s restaurants while performing in Covent Garden during the late 1890s and early 1900s. Escoffier claims to have first created the Peach Melba while Nellie was a guest at the Savoy Hotel, where he was chef. As the story goes, Nellie sent Escoffier tickets to her performance in the Wagner opera Lohengrin. The production featured a beautiful boat in the shape of a swan. The following evening, Escoffier presented Nellie with a dessert of fresh peaches served over vanilla ice cream in a silver dish perched atop a swan carved from ice. He originally called the dish Pecheau Cygne, or ‘peach with a swan.’ A few years later, when Escoffier opened the Ritz Carlton in London with César Ritz, he changed the dish slightly by adding a topping of sweetened raspberry purée. He renamed the dish Pêche Melba, or Peach Melba as we know it here in the U.S. The rest, as they say, is history.”
(Avey also mentions that the cracker called Melba toast was also named for our girl. Seems there was no end to the tasty nibbles she inspired. Maybe Melba toast, a classic staple of reducing diets, was designed to counteract the effects of eating too much Peach Melba!)
Here’s a translation of Escoffier’s original recipe for Peach Melba. I haven’t tried making it yet but it sounds heavenly, especially for summer (remember summer? sigh…) when peaches are abundant.
Original Recipe for La Pêche Melba (for 6)
Choose 6 tender and perfectly ripe peaches. The Montreuil peach, for example, is perfect for this dessert. Blanch the peaches for 2 seconds in boiling water, remove them immediately with a slotted spoon, and place them in iced water for a few seconds. Peel them and place them on a plate, sprinkle them with a little sugar, and refrigerate them. Prepare a liter of very creamy vanilla ice cream and a purée of 250 grams of very fresh ripe raspberries crushed through a fine sieve and mixed with 150 grams of powdered sugar. Refrigerate.
To serve: Fill a silver timbale with the vanilla ice cream. Delicately place the peaches on top of the ice cream and cover with the raspberry purée. Optionally, during the almond season, one can add a few slivers of fresh almonds on top, but never use dried almonds.
Tori Avey also includes this more detailed modern version:
- 6 ripe, tender peaches
- 1 ½ pints vanilla ice cream (fresh homemade is best)
- 1 heaping cup fresh ripe raspberries
- 1 heaping cup powdered sugar
- 6 tbsp blanched raw almond slivers (optional)
- Boil a medium pot of water. Keep a large bowl of ice water close by. Gently place a peach into the boiling water. Let the peach simmer for 15-20 seconds, making sure all surfaces of the peach are submerged. Remove the peach from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and immediately plunge it into the ice water for a few seconds to cool. Take the peach out of the ice water and place it on a plate. Repeat the process for the remaining peaches.
- When all of the peaches have been submerged, peel them. Their skin should come off easily if they are ripe, thanks to the short boiling process. Discard the skins. Halve the peeled peaches and discard the pits.
- Optional Step: Place the peeled peaches in a large bowl of cold water mixed with 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice or ascorbic acid powder. Let the peach halves soak for 10 minutes. Drain off the water and gently pat the peach halves dry with a paper towel. This step will help to keep the peaches from oxidizing and turning brown.
- Sprinkle the peach halves with sugar on all exposed surfaces. Place them on a plate in a single layer, then place them in the refrigerator for 1 hour to chill.
- Meanwhile, make the raspberry purée. Place the raspberries into a blender and pulse for a few seconds to create a purée. Strain purée into a bowl through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down on the solid ingredients and agitating the mixture with a metal spoon to extract as much syrupy juice as possible. It will take a few minutes to extract all of the juice from the solids. When finished, you should only have seeds and a bit of pulp left in the strainer. Dispose of the solids.
- Sift the powdered sugar into the raspberry purée, adding a little powdered sugar at a time, and whisking in stages till the sugar is fully incorporated into the syrup. It will take several minutes of vigorous whisking to fully integrate the powdered sugar into the syrup. Refrigerate the raspberry syrup for 1 hour, or until chilled.
- Assemble six serving dishes. Scoop ½ cup of vanilla ice cream into each serving dish. Place two of the sugared peach halves on top of each serving of ice cream. Divide the raspberry sauce between the six dishes, drizzling the sauce over the top of the peaches and ice cream. Top each serving with a tablespoon of raw almond slivers, if desired. Serve immediately.
Yield: 6 servings