Friday, September 21, 2007

Kids and Peach Cobbler

Ever tried skinning a peach with a plastic knife?

This week I wanted to introduce the kids in my "food appreciation" classes to the idea of seasonality. I couldn't think of a better way than with some delicious peaches. Apparently, the idea of "seasonal" fruits and vegetables is something new to them.

Why, I asked them, do you suppose Whole Foods would sell peaches like this that are so hard and aren't ripe yet?

The young students thought for a moment.

Because they taste better?

Uh, no. Not really.

So you can take them home and they'll get softer?

Well, that may be true. But what if I told you these peaches came all the way from Washington State. That's almost 3,000 miles these peaches had to travel to get to the Whole Foods here in the District of Columbia. Would that explain why the peaches are so hard?

Maybe because they're easier to put in boxes that way?

Yes! Now you're getting somewhere. The farmers pick the peaches when they're still hard, before they're really ripe, because it's much easier to truck them across the country that way. They aren't so easily damaged. But what if you wanted a peach that was already soft and ripe and juicy and ready to eat? What would you do to get one?

Go to the store?

In fact, many of these seven- and eight-year-olds have been to the local pick-your-own orchards, so they know what peach and apple trees are. Some even have fruit growing in their yard. But apparently they have trouble making the distinction between fruit that's been picked ripe and is ready to eat and fruit that's been harvested before its time solely for the convenience of the interstate produce industry.

It took quite a bit of prompting, quite a lot of the Socratic question-and-answer method I use with the kids, to get around to the idea that some fruits and vegetables are grown much closer to home and can be purchased ripe and ready to eat at the local farmers market.

Do you know what a farmers market is?

Isn't that a building where people sell stuff?

Anyway, the kids took turns trying to skin the peaches with the plastic knives from the collection of disposables the school keeps on hand. (I know--too much plastic!) To move the process along, I had already skinned five very large (and not very ripe) peaches from Whole Foods and cut them into thin wedges. We dressed these in a mixing bowl with 1/4 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons corn starch, 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice and a pinch of salt.

I explain how the sugar will draw the juices out of the peaches, how the corn starch will thicken the juices into a kind of sauce when it cooks in the oven. And why would we put salt in a peach dessert? Because salt makes almost everything taste better. We give our cobbler filling a good stir, pour the mix into a ceramic oval (or small casserole) and place it in a 425-degree oven to cook.

While the peaches are baking, we make our crust. This is a shortbread or biscuit dough recipe. The object is to handle it as little as possible to keep it light, not bready, and just scatter the dough in small clumps over the top of the peaches.

Measure 1 3/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour (we use King Arthur) into a mixing bowl. Add 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon salt. Then cut in 5 tablespoons unsalted butter.

I explain the concept of shortening and cutting it into the flour. The kids watch me cut small pieces off a chilled stick of butter. Then they each get a turn working the butter into the flour, squishing the butter and flour together with their finger tips very quickly (you don't want your body heat to melt the butter) until the mix looks more like sand and the flour has taken on some of the yellowish tint of the butter.

We then add 3/4 cup whole milk to the bowl. Always add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, not the other way around. Then with a spatula we mix just enough so that the milk is completely incorporated and the dough just holds together.

I remove the ceramic oval from the oven. The peaches are pretty well cooked through and bubbling. Now the kids can each have a turn picking clumps of sticky dough out of the bowl and dropping it onto the peach filling. Soon the whole top is covered. It goes back into the oven and while the crust bakes to a golden brown--about 20 minutes--we read a couple of chapters from--what else?--James and the Giant Peach.

It's a ghastly tale of a poor boy who's left all alone with his perfectly horrible aunts after his parents on a trip to London are eaten by a rhinoceros escaped from the zoo. Then he accidentally spills a bag of magic crystals, which filter down to the roots of a gnarley old barren peach tree, which then produces a giant man-eating peach. The kids are mesmerized.

But we can't leave without sampling some peach cobbler. It comes out of the oven with the crust lightly browned, rough and pebbley looking. A cobbler should be casual and easy, not fussy, the savory biscuit crust playing with the sweet peaches and sauce.

This one is still too hot to touch, so I've made a second cobbler ahead. The kids each get a generous spoonful. Some decline and run out to the playground. The rest clean their plates.


Kevin said...

I haven't seen any peaches at the farmers' market this year -- we had a severe freeze this spring and a drought since. I finally broke down and bought some at the local equivalent of Whole Foods. There were as poor as I'd feared.{sigh}

Ed Bruske said...

I'd been meaning to comment on your blog anyway, Keven, so catch my response over there.