By all accounts the sunny and hot summer of 2010 has been a banner year for Niagara peaches and their cousin the nectarine. I can’t remember a disappointing peach from the ones I have picked up from farmers’ markets. Though the smaller, wan ones in the new see-through tubs from the grocery store are a much less exciting story.
A good peach is, to me, four things: colourful (that is aesthetically pleasing in ways that don’t necessarily pertain to how certain colours indicate ripeness), juicy, sweet, and fragrantly peachy. Juicy is difficult to preserve and the aesthetics can be managed but really only with whole or halved fruit preserved in syrup or spirits and I’ve already tried those methods this year with strawberries and cherries. I considered another run at chutney like the one from last year but while tasty the problem there is that the spices dominate instead of the peaches. Also, chutney is best made with under-ripe fruit and that’s impossible to find at this point in the season. Peach jam would be good but what I finally decided on was peach-nectarine butter.I have an old family recipe for damson plum jam that directs us to “crack a half dozen or so of the pits and add the kernels to the fruit.” Like plum kernels those in peach pits contain the ethereal and fragrant flavours and aromas that we associate with bitter almonds and marzipan. They also contain amygdalin, a precursor of hydrogen cyanide. That’s right, they’re mildly poisonous. But so are a lot of things in large enough quantities–like water and vitamin C, not just fugu, the poisonous pufferfish–so the question is: how poisonous? Well, the website of a guy who calls himself Dr. Gourmet says that you’d have to eat at least ten kernels to be in danger. I want to use six to eight pits to make six jars of peach butter. We’ll be fine.
Having peeled about fourteen nectarines and peaches (total) I was left wondering how I would get the kernel out of the pit–the kernel looks like a small flat almond. Plan A: a nutcracker that doubles as a lobster cracker, or maybe that’s the other way around. Either way this was totally ineffective. On to Plan B: The smooth side of a kitchen mallet, and then the side with teeth. Neither worked. Plan C: after a Google search (should always be “plan A” I’m coming to learn) I found that the generally accepted method for cracking peach pits is with channel-lock pliers. Seriously.
I still struggled but having been convinced by Youtube that the method is workable I fought on. If you want to follow in my crazy footsteps the important steps are:
- Work inside a resealable plastic bag. When the shell cracks it will probably spray your kitchen (and you) in shrapnel if you don’t.
- At least until you master the art of squeezing just hard enough. This also saves the much softer kernel from being pulverised.
- I had the best luck when the pit’s longest dimension was aligned perpendicular to the pliers and the seam was facing me.
- If some just won’t open come back to them once you’ve done a couple and have a better understanding of how much force is needed. If they still won’t open discard them.
I understand that an oyster knife and its usual technique also can be made to work in this situation.
The flesh of the fruit is boiled for fifteen minutes with half a cup of water until it softens a bit. Then process in a blender or food mill until the desired consistency is reached. Take care not to entirely liquefy the fruit. If you use a food mill the peaches and nectarines don’t need to be peeled first; if you use a blender employ the usual caution needed for blending hot food.
For every pound of fruit that I started with (four total) I added about 3/4 of a cup of granulated sugar, stirred in the peeled kernels, a half cap-full of almond extract and three or four generous grinds of nutmeg. This mixture went into a slow cooker with the lid set slightly ajar to make some reduction possible.
Slow cooker, electric crock pot, whatever. They drive me up the wall for one very specific reason: their obtuse controls. The one I was using has an “Off” button and a “Cook Time” button that when pressed lights one of four little red lights (the next in progression each time it is pressed) labelled “4 hrs”, “6 hrs”, “8 hrs”, and “10 hrs”. How on Earth can the machine judge the size, shape, and physical composition of the food being cooked and figure out how long it will be before it is done? Obviously, the semi-intelligent will understand that “4 hrs” means “slightly hot” right down to the “barely warm” of “10 hrs”. But why not a dial? Or even better a digital control for the thermostat?
Anyway, not being able to leave well enough alone I set the slow cooker on “4 hrs” for the three hours between turning it on and going to bed and on “10 hrs” for the seven between then and waking up. The result was only slightly more brown and caramelized than I would have liked. But this is a truly excellent preserve–sweet, smooth but slightly textured and embodying the essence of a home run year for peaches.
Disclaimer: Peach pits contain a chemical which is poisonous in large enough quantities. This effect may be exaggerated by those who are allergic to almonds are for reasons beyond guessing. Proceed with caution and at your own risk. Also, cracking a peach pit with channel-lock pliers is a procedure that requires caution.