Thursday, August 25, 2011
Peach Crostata with Fennel Sugar
The peach harvest is in full swing, and this crostata is something I’ve been making for years now to celebrate that delicious moment late in summer when the fruit’s flavor reaches its height. In fact we love high season peaches so much that I spend much of June and July prowling the farmer’s market with a surly expression, as though it’s the farmers’ fault the fruit isn’t ready yet. The first time you taste this crostata though, I hope you will understand why.
I’m always sort of perplexed as to why the peach and fennel combination isn’t seen more on this side of the Atlantic. It’s one of my most beloved flavors from both Provence and northern Italy, both of which happen to be ranked among the world’s leading peach producers. Jars of peach and fennel seed confiture or marmellata can be found all over the markets there.
The concept here is as simple as it gets: bash open some fennel seed to release the oils, sprinkle over the ripest peaches you can find, pile them onto a pastry circle to make a free-form, rustic tart, and bake until golden. The result is the most aromatic, intensified, peachiest peaches you can imagine. Something about the earthy fennel raises the peaches’ flavor and perfume to sublime heights, and the flaky, warm pastry is wonderful for soaking up the juices. You don’t even need a dollop of cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, though I’ve never known them to hurt.
Buy freestone peaches for this whenever you can. They make the job of halving, stoning, and slicing the peaches far easier obviously, but I also find I prefer the juicier texture of freestone peaches for baking and tend to keep my clingstone peaches for jam. And avoid the temptation of using slightly under-ripe fruit here. Baked peaches give as good as they get. In other words, they won’t miraculously ripen, sweeten, or juice-up in the oven.
The pastry here was inspired by a galette dough from an old favorite, Dorie Greenspan’s Baking with Julia. It’s a wonderful, buttery, flaky recipe that works for both sweet and savory tarts. The cornmeal gives it welcome crunch – enough to hold syrupy fillings like this one.
Serves 6 – 8
3 tbsp plain yogurt
1/3 cup (approximately) ice water
I cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornmeal
1 tsp granulated sugar
½ tsp salt
7 tbsp cold unsalted butter, diced
1 tbsp fennel seed
2 tbsp granulated sugar
6 - 7 large, ripe peaches (roughly 2lbs of fruit), halved, stoned, and sliced into wedges (about 10 wedges per large peach)
Make the crostata dough:
Mix the yogurt and water together in a small bowl and set aside. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add the diced butter, and working just with the tips of your fingers, rub into the dry ingredients until the mixture is speckled with pieces of butter that vary in size from breadcrumbs to peas. (You can pulse it in a food processor if you prefer).
Use a fork to whisk in the yogurt and ice water mixture, a couple of tablespoons at a time, just until soft curds form. You want to avoid making the dough too wet or it’ll be difficult to handle later. Place the dough on some plastic wrap and press it down to form a disk. Wrap and chill at least two hours or overnight. The dough can be frozen at this point for up to one month if wrapped airtight. It will take about 20 minutes to thaw.
Assemble and bake the crostata:
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet (with sides, not a flat cookie sheet) with baking parchment.
Use a mortar and pestle to bash up the fennel seeds, stir in the sugar, and set aside.
Roll the pastry dough out over a well-floured surface to a 12-inch circle, roll up around your rolling pin and transfer to the parchment-lined baking sheet. In a medium bowl, gently toss the sliced peaches with half of the fennel sugar. Heap them in the center of the pastry circle (see the photo above) and fold the sides of the dough up over the filling, working around the circle, so that each fold overlaps the last (see the photo below). If your dough is too sticky, use a floured bench scraper or the floured side of a chef’s knife to help you fold over the edges.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg with a splash of water. Use a pastry brush to brush the top of the pastry with the egg mixture and then sprinkle over the rest of the fennel sugar.
Bake in the center of the oven until the pastry is golden and crisp – start checking at 50 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Use a wide spatula to help you lift the crostata off of the rack and onto the cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature – you’ll want to slice it with a large, sharp knife.