You’ll find this much maligned retro recipe, created by the great Auguste Escoffier, is much more than the sum of its parts
For a dish described by none other than Jane Grigson as “the most famous and travestied of all fruit puddings”, peach melba crops up surprisingly seldom on modern menus: you’re more likely to find it as a flavour of yoghurt or ice-cream than as a dessert in its own right. Originally created by the great French chef Auguste Escoffier during his spell in charge of the kitchens at the Savoy in London, and named in honour of opera star Dame Nellie Melba, in residence at the hotel while performing at Covent Garden, its fame quickly spread beyond the confines of WC2 – helped along, no doubt, by the immense celebrity of both parties.
Yet the dish stands on its own merits, too: this glorious combination of tangy peach and softer, sweeter raspberry brings out the best in both fruits, which are taken to even greater heights by the cool, creamy pleasures of vanilla ice-cream. As the great man himself wrote, “Pêche Melba is a simple dish,” but he went on to warn that “any variation … ruins the delicate balance of its taste.” Is the world’s first master chef right – or, 125 years after its creation, could this classic do with updating?
Poach a peach
At the height of summer, you might well get away with using raw peaches, so ripe they need nothing in the way of sugar, as Margaret Costa suggests in her Four Seasons Cookery Book, but given the rarity of this occurrence in the UK, it makes sense to have a contingency plan. In any case, lovely as fuzzy peach skins are, Escoffier would never have allowed them past the pass. He calls for the fruit to be blanched and then dunked into iced water, so the skins can be slipped off and the fruit simply sugared to draw out its juices, although Bruno Neveu, former pastry chef at the Ritz-Escoffier cooking school in Paris, poaches them, too, perhaps because raw peaches are judged to have a little too much in the way of texture to allow elegant consumption.
Poaching the fruit in syrup is fairly standard in modern recipes, although the medium varies: Nigel Slater counsels moderation with the sugar: “Too often, they come out cloyingly sweet.” He also adds a squeeze of lemon juice and a twist of peel, as does Diana Henry, who suggests making the syrup with dry white wine rather than water. Barbara Cartland, whose pink-jacketed masterwork, The Romance of Food, the best present I’ve received in the past 12 months, shows no such restraint, and indeed, it pays off: the fruit isn’t in the syrup long enough to become sickly (five minutes to Henry’s 15-20), which means it remains pleasingly firm, too.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tops his peaches with sugar and butter, and bakes them instead in his River Cottage Fruit Every Day: it does indeed make them “extra rich and toffeeish”, but also leaves them rather mushy – and none of us is quite sure how we feel about hot peaches (see also crumble), although he reckons the contrast in temperature
We all enjoy Escoffier’s blanched and sugared peaches: they still have the juicy, plump texture of the ripe fruit, as well as being far more economical with the sugar. If your peaches are really under-ripe, however, I’d recommend poaching them for about five minutes in a syrup made from 150g sugar and 300ml water, perhaps with some lemon zest, vanilla or even a bay leaf if you’re feeling daring.
Slater claims that “peaches need to be poached with their skins on”, but both Cartland and Richard Olney disagree. They must have more patience than me, however (or, in Cartland’s case, a personal chef, Nigel Gordon), because a ripe peach is a pain indeed to peel. Much easier to blanch them as Escoffier and Neveu recommend.
The variety of peach is more important than one might think: both Grigson and Henry prefer a white-fleshed fruit, but these tend to lack the acidity that plays off so nicely against the other ingredients: a standard yellow peach is both easier to come by and works better (save the white kind for bellinis). Nectarines, which I also try, seem to hang on to their skins more jealously than their furry cousins.
If you can’t find any peaches – and Escoffier is clear that this must be made with “tender and very ripe peaches” – but have a yearning for a peach melba all the same, Olney allows that “home-canned peaches are respectable”, and I suspect he would also have given top-quality jarred fruit the grudging nod. The tinned kind tend to be watery and overcooked, but I can highly recommend the “hand-peeled Miraflores” fruit from Spanish brand El Navarrico, and no doubt other equally good versions are available.
The special genius of this dish, for me, is the vivid red raspberry sauce that clings to the peeled peaches like a new and sweeter skin – again, you might get lucky and find fruit so stupidly ripe that it needs little more than crushing and sieving before use, but it’s more likely that you’ll need to sweeten it. Most recipes call for caster or icing sugar, which dissolves more easily in the pureed fruit, but Cartland uses currant jelly and kirsch, and Slater some of the poaching syrup, which feels like a clever way of putting it to use if you have it (if you go down the poaching road, leftover syrup is also very nice with some cold white wine or soda water).
Currant jelly has a certain tang to it that helps to bring out the flavour of the berries, but Fearnley-Whittingstall’s lemon juice tastes fresher to us. (Again, Olney comes to the rescue of out-of-season cooks, advising the use of frozen raspberries that “still recall the flavour of the fresh”: make sure you defrost them first, though, or you’ll end up with a loose sorbet.)
Unfortunately, you do need to sieve the sauce: this sounds like a faff, and you’ll lose a little of the flesh along the way – although they are edible, raspberry seeds are not terribly nice once isolated from their natural home, and also have an irritating tendency to lodge themselves in the teeth. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe, which folds whole fruit into the sauce at the end, gives it the texture of the fresh berries and the heightened flavour of a puree.
The ice-cream and extras
Cartland, the woman who spawned a thousand slender, willowy heroines, doesn’t even hint at the forbidden pleasures of ice-cream in her recipe, but Escoffier is explicit: the dish must start with a silver timbale full of vanilla ice-cream, and it’s hard to improve upon that idea, although we are rather taken with Henry’s alternative of lightly sweetened creme fraiche, especially if well chilled; I suspect a scoop of proper frozen yoghurt (not the low-fat variety) would also be delicious. Try to use an ice-cream that isn’t too sweet: it shouldn’t overwhelm the fruit.
Olney argues that peach melba “depends on three things only for it to rank among the finest of classical French desserts: the honesty of the ice-cream, flavourful peaches that have been freshly poached in a syrup containing only water and sugar, and a sauce that is nothing but a puree of fresh raspberries. The best whipped cream in the world only detracts. The only acceptable refinement is the sprinkling of a few sliced fresh almonds over the surface.” And while I may disagree on several points, he’s right about the almonds at least: they add a very gratifying crunch of which I’m sure Escoffier himself would have approved, if only he’d wasted less time chasing celebrities.
Perfect peach melba
Prep 5 min
Cook 20 min (+ 1 hr steeping)
4 ripe peaches
4 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp flaked almonds
300g raspberries (thawed if frozen)
1 tbsp icing sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
8 scoops good vanilla ice-cream
Blanch the peaches in a pan of boiling water for a minute, then lift them out with a slotted spoon and dunk into iced water. Once they’re cool enough to handle, slip off their skins, cut in half and discard the stones.
Put the peach halves in a shallow dish, sprinkle over the sugar, then set aside for about an hour, preferably in the fridge, turning once. Meanwhile, toast the almonds until lightly golden and leave to cool.
Whizz two-thirds of the raspberries with the icing sugar and a tablespoon of lemon juice, then adjust to taste and push through a fine sieve to make a smooth sauce. Stir in the remaining 100g raspberries and put in the fridge until you’re ready to eat.