“A Georgia peach, a real Georgia peach, a backyard great-grandmother’s orchard peach, is as thickly furred as a sweater, and so fluent and sweet that once you bite through the flannel, it brings tears to your eyes.”
Melissa Fay Greene, ‘Praying for Sheetrock’
I grew up in the Peach State. I’ve lived many places, but in my heart, I will always be a “funny talkin’ honky-tonkin’ Georgia Peach.” Georgia is no longer the United States’ top peach producer, but it still has the best peaches. My High School sweetheart was somehow related to the owners of the local orchard, Thomas’ in the thriving metropolis of Bishop, Georgia. He could get us in early, before they opened to the general public and — more importantly in Georgia in July — before the temperature and humidity rose into the mid-80s. Still, peach picking was hot, humid work. After an hour or two Thomas’, I’d be sweaty, thirsty, sticky and covered with peach fuzz and the occasional bee sting. But nothing can match the joy of standing on a step ladder in the middle of a peach orchard and biting into a warm, perfectly tree-ripened peach.
Peaches are my absolute, all-time favourite fruit. I came by my love of peaches early. Long before we moved to Georgia. You see, my Great Aunt, Tanta Ida, made the absolutely most delicious peach coffee cake ever.
My Aunties tell me she would make huge pans of küchen for all the various boyfriends who visited the foxy Saltenberger girls over the years. She made some for my Dad when we visited Eagle River every summer, and I happily embraced the peachy deliciousness windfall. [The family lore says Dad hated Eagle River — he didn’t — because he was bored without any libraries to hand. I think it was more a matter of vanity: people were constantly feeding him and, as you can see in this vintage photo, he got a bit chubby. And then there were Grandpa’s Scotch and Root Beers.]
All my life, I’ve tried to find that special peach deliciousness. A few weeks ago, while I was going through some of Mum’s old recipes, I found a very old, stained recipe for Tanta’s Peach Küchen. Joy! My next invention test was born.
New Zealand produces peaches. They are tasty, but they are delicate wee things. In the effort to minimise the fuzz, the varieties of peaches they grow here have very thin skins. It’s almost impossible to get them home from the market unscathed. Fortunately, the nectarines are fairly robust. Peaches have fuzz to protect the fruit from water and keep it from rotting. It’s like a little peach raincoat. Nectarines are just peaches without their raincoats. As far as this recipe is concerned, they are interchangeable.
I was, however, determined to work with the real thing. Tanta didn’t use nectarines, so I wouldn’t either. As it turns out, getting the peaches home safely was only the first of my challenges. When I started this Lenten journey of recipe invention, I said I would share the successes as well as the less-then-successes. In this case, there were a couple of false starts before I finally settled on formula that works.
The challenge, in this case, was translating a shorthand recipe from another era on another continent into something that I could recreate in my kitchen in New Zealand. The directions were fairly general, but, obviously, 3 cakes of yeast and 7 1/2 cups (1,065g) of flour was going to make one honking big cake. But how big? “Spread in pan (greased well)” wasn’t much help. And what is the modern, dry yeast equivalent of 3 cakes of yeast?
For some help, I turned to my trusty copy of The Food Substitutions Bible (see “The Third Cookbook of Christmas”). It suggested that one cake of fresh yeast is equivalent to one package, or 2 1/4 tsp (8g) of active dry yeast. Great. That means I would need over 2 Tablespoons (24g) of yeast for 7 1/2 cups of flour! Argh! An oven explosion was sure to ensue.
I decided I would cut the recipe by a third(ish), since there was only me and Simon to eat it, so I trusted my baking experience and estimated how much yeast I would need. So, for 4 cups (568g) of flour, I would use the equivalent of one package of dry yeast, 2 1/4 tsp (8g). And 3 tsp of salt seemed like an awful lot, so I cut that back to 1 tsp.
The next hurdle was the liquid. Tanta, at least before my Grandfather burned the farm down (long story for another post), would have used whole, raw milk and eggs straight from the chicken. My concern was that our supermarket milk, even whole milk, might lack the right balance of fat and natural sugar. We don’t buy whole milk, but I keep a bag of New Zealand’s #1 export commodity, whole milk powder, on hand for baking. That’s what I ended up using.
I reckon the butter we get here in New Zealand is probably closer to what Tanta would have had than the processed butter we used to get in the States. The fresh (unsalted) butter here is incredibly dense, with very little added water. So no worries there.
Her farm eggs were probably as unpredictable as our farm eggs, so I held back one of the yolks, just in case everything ended up too gooey. It didn’t and I ended up using the whole egg.
The biggest question mark turned out to be the fruit-to-cake ratio. The recipe just says “arrange the peach slices on the dough.” How many peach slices? How many peaches?
In the end, I decided, the first time around, to base the number of peaches on the size of the cake. I guessed that Tanta would have made her küchen in a lasagne-sized pan (9×13 inches). I had inherited a marvellous lasagne-sized pan from the farm that Mum told me was Grandma’s coffee cake pan. Coffee Cake? Küchen? Same pan? I decided to use my 8×8 inch glass cake pan. Based on the reduced amount of dough I had, it seemed a reasonable assumption.
Tanta’s recipe called for 3 cups of sugar and 4 1/2 tsp of cinnamon for the topping. Yikes! Another hint that she was making big, sheet cakes. I cut that back to 1/2 cup (100g) sugar and 1 tsp of cinnamon — you can always add more if you like your streusel really cinnamony.
So, my first effort was OK, but not right. Why? It came down to two miscalculations: too much yeast, not enough pan. So my first küchen rose too much and threw most of the fruit and topping out of the pan and on to the pizza stone that lives at the bottom of my oven. Smelly burning sugar mess.
The good news is that two weeks later I tried again, adjusting the yeast, using a larger pan, and, just to put my own spin on things, adding oatmeal and brown sugar to Tanta’s sugar-butter-flour-cinnamon topping. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the final result.
Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Küchen
This is not an extravagantly sweet coffee cake. It is an old-fashioned, gather around the kitchen table for elevenses coffee cake. You can eat this for breakfast and not feel guilty. After all, it’s basically peaches and oatmeal. Right? My theory is that my Tanta and Grandmother developed their recipes during the Great Depression, when money was scarce, especially on farms, and the sweetness in food came, as much as possible, from the natural sugars in the milk and fruit.
1 cup (250ml) whole milk (reconstituted dry works well)
1/3 cup (65g) granulated sugar
6 TBSP (85g) unsalted butter
1 1/2 tsp (7ml) active dry yeast (NOT quick rise or bread machine yeast)
2 large eggs
4 cups (568g) all-purpose / standard grade flour
1 tsp (5ml) kosher or sea salt
7 peaches (or more, if you like)
Juice of 1 lemon
3 TBSP brown sugar
1/2 cup (100g)2 granulated sugar
1/3 cup (70g) standard grade flour
1/3 cup rolled oats
2 TBSP butter, melted
1 tsp cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Butter a 9 x 13 pan. To make removing the cake from the pan easier, you can line the bottom and two sides with parchment to form a sort of sling. Don’t forget to butter the parchment.
- Scald the milk. This makes the milk taste sweeter and, well, milkier. You can do this on the stove by putting the milk in a small saucepan and heating it until it has a skin on top, but short of a simmer. It will just be beginning to form tiny bubbles around the edges. The easier way is to put the milk, butter, and sugar in a glass container and microwave the whole works for about 3-4 minutes at high. Just to be on the safe side, I zap it for two minutes, check the temperature, and zap it for another minute or two.
- Let the milk/butter/sugar cool to lukewarm (skin temperature), then add the yeast and let it proof for five minutes or so. If your liquid is too hot, you’ll kill the yeast. If your yeast is good, it will go to town and end up looking like this
- Gently beat the eggs and add them to the wet ingredients.
- Sift the flour and salt together in your mixing bowl. If you are using a standing mixer, using the flat paddle, add the wet ingredients to the flour. If you are mixing by hand, make a well in the flour and add the wet ingredients.
- Mix everything just until it comes together into a ball. This doesn’t want a lot of kneading.
- Cover the dough and let it rise for at least an hour.
- While the dough is rising, peel, pit, and slice your peaches. To peel the peaches, drop them, one or two at a time, into a pot of boiling water for 20-30 seconds then into a bowl of ice water to stop them cooking. Then you can just rub the peel off with a paper towel. Be careful. They are very slippery.
- Toss the peaches with the juice of 1 lemon (to stop them turning brown). You can add a little sugar here, but I don’t
- Roll out the risen dough into a rough rectangle slightly bigger than your pan, then press the dough into the pan with the dough going up the sides. Like this:
- Arrange the peach slices over the dough in one or two layers. I thought seven peaches were enough, but Simon wanted more. Use your judgement here. Or, you can throw in a handful of blueberries. The photo on the right is my first attempt — the one that exploded all over the oven — you can sort of see the signs already. But the combination of yellow and white peaches and blueberries was pretty, and tasty.
- To make the topping, sift together the dry ingredients, then stir in the melted butter with a fork. Mix it all up until the butter is well distributed.
- Spread the topping evenly over the peaches, then cover with a towel and let rise for another 30 minutes. This is a good time to preheat the oven, if you haven’t already.
- Bake the küchen in the 375/190 oven for about 40 minutes. The toothpick test is tricky, with all the gooey fruit. It should be done when the crust around the edges is nice and golden brown. If you did the sling thing, you can try pulling it up. If the whole thing sort of slumps in the middle, you might need a little more baking time.
- This is delicious hot, so you only need to cool it on a wire rack for a few minutes before you grab your fork, brew and cuppa, and eat Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Küchen.