Peach party South Carolina's favorite fruit arrives early and stays late

Peach and Cheesecake Graham Cracker Pie.

"Pretty is as pretty does,” my mother used to say, just as she would say “beauty is only skin deep.” And that is as true of peaches as any other fruit. The outside skin has nothing to do with the goodness inside, although the familiarly shaped peach is a good sign of proper maturing.

The order of peaches each season is “Clingstone first, then semi-cling, then freestone,” says best-selling author Dori Sanders when I called her to get my South Carolina peaches straight.

Dori grows peaches with her brothers at Sanders Farm in York County. One of the oldest African-American farms in the area, four generations have farmed there since the Sanders family started planting peaches in the early 1920s. The farm used to be called Sanders Brothers until Dori gently suggested the name change to her brothers, pointing out all her activity in the orchard and farm stand.

The earliest summer peaches are clingstones, whose flesh clings to the stone of the peach. They bring much flavor but do not cut as prettily. They are ideal for peach butter, peach pickles, jams and other goodies, but I find that with a little work I can get a “good enough” slice to give a rustic look as I did in the featured photographs.

Spencer McLeod of McLeod Farms in McBee optimistically spoke of the flavor their clingstones had this year even though the frost hit some of the trees. The fewer peaches on a tree, the better the flavor he says. Traditionally Ruby Prince is prone to split and is watery. This year they have an excellent full taste, size and are looking good.

He is looking forward to more volume in his favorite later peaches, Cresthaven and Winblo with their full flavor of peach. Their “peachiness” is neither too tart nor too sweet but a good mix of acidity. By then, he said, the crop should be up to at least 75 percent of normal in volume.

Dori has high hopes for her favorite Cresthavens and Early Havens in mid-June when the semi-clings come along. They are just as the name implies: a little easier to get away from the stone. Early July brings the freestones. Freestones pull right off, slicing prettily and are “licking good.” Dori says “you take your fingers and pull the peach apart and the juice runs down your fingers.” At the end of August, the peaches reverse back to semi-cling and maybe cling.

Although South Carolina typically produces more peaches than Georgia, this year is unpredictable, as the maturity of the peaches when the frost hit determined how hard a crop was hit. In fact, Dori says this is the worst early crop ever for those in York County, Gaffney and other areas hit by the March 22 freeze and later cold weather. Some varieties are wiped out, and a number of farm stands are closed until mid-July when the later varieties come out. Late spring tree peaches are running $25 a bushel.

Dori is going to be at the family farm stand, however, as she always is. “It is still booming with vegetables. You may not get a peach,” she says, “but you will always get a story” — such as those she wrote in her books. Or she may get a story from you, as she did when she wrote her best-selling novel “Clover.”

The two varieties of peaches are white and yellow, both having a blush of pink when ripe. Avoid those with a blush of green. They were picked far too green to ever ripen properly.

Ripe peaches have just a little “push” to them, tender but not soft. Purchased at that point, they are ready to use. “Don't squeeze the peaches, just as you wouldn't the Charmin in the ad,” Dori says.

When storing peaches, be sure to keep them from touching each other as they are more liable to bruise. (That is why truly perfect peaches are shipped in little individual cups, like eggs are. It doesn't make them any better to begin with, just prevents them from bruising.) Blemishes and bruises should be cut off before using, as should those little brown freckles on the skin Dori calls “frog's eyes,” which don't affect the taste at all.

Purchase just a little hard, ripen at room temperature, without the peaches touching, or Dori recommends putting in a paper bag a day or two to ripen. If they soften too much, do the unthinkable, and refrigerate them to prevent more ripening. Otherwise, avoid refrigerating them as that retards their further ripening.

Makes 12

This recipe is from Dori Sanders' “Country Cooking” and is unique. I would be startled at the combination of peaches and cornmeal had I not visited Dori at her family's peach farm. A human dynamo, she works planting and pruning and picking and selling at the farm stand while writing award-winning novels and cookbooks. Whatever you can do with peaches, Dori can do, so why not cornmeal muffins? They are a fabulous surprise. And served with Peach Butter, they are a dazzling treat for the most hard-hearted Yankee who doesn't like cornbread. The choice of fresh or frozen peaches is mine — after all, I don't live on a peach farm!

Ingredients

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg, beaten to mix

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup white cornmeal

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup milk

1 cup finely chopped fresh or frozen and defrosted peaches (about 2 medium)

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 12-muffin pan and set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar together until light, using a mixer or by hand. Add the egg and beat again until light in color.

Mix together the flour, cornmeal, salt and baking powder onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper. Funnel half this dry mixture into the butter mixture, add half the milk, and stir well until just combined; then add the second half of each, stirring after each addition until just combined.

Add the fresh chopped peaches and stir to blend.

Fill each muffin cup two-thirds full with the batter and bake 20 to 25 minutes, until golden. Cool for 5 minutes on a wire rack, carefully remove from muffin tins, and allow to cool completely, unless you want to serve hot with Peach Butter (recipe follows).

Variation: Dori adds 1⁄8 teaspoon ground nutmeg; I leave it out sometimes and add ground cinnamon or ginger or other good spices.

Makes 4 pints

This is astonishingly good for buttered biscuits, toasted biscuits, pancakes or waffles. It is also a good filling to sandwich between small meringues or butter cookies, and is superb served with peach cobbler or other peach desserts. It can be diluted a bit with water and used as a glaze. If it is runnier than you like after you take it off the heat, no matter. It is still delicious. Keep refrigerated, sealed tightly.

Ingredients

5 pounds clean peaches

2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons brandy or fruit liqueur, such as peach Schnapps (optional)

1 tablespoon candied ginger, optional

Directions

To peel a peach: Add to boiling water for 30 seconds to a minute. (Save the liquid in case you need it later for the butter.) Remove the peach to a bowl of ice water and let sit a minute or two. Remove and pull off skin. There are also some gadgets that can be used to remove peach skin.

Peel and pit the peaches. Remove any brown spots. Cut into large pieces and puree, using an immersion blender, food processor or blender. Measure the puree and add strained reserved blanching liquid if necessary to make about 8 1/2 cups total.

Add the puree to the sugar in a heavy pan and cook partially covered over low heat about 3 hours, until thick, stirring occasionally, and making sure there is no scorching. Taste and add brandy or liqueur if desired and cook a few minutes more. Add the ginger if desired. Remove from the heat. Cool and move to airtight containers, storing in the refrigerator up to 2 to 3 weeks, or freeze until ready to use. This may also be canned according to canning directions. This may also be made in a slow cooker. Check your cooker's book for timing.

Variation: Add cinnamon or other spices to taste.

I made this recipe up one day using some not very pretty cling peaches that tasted delicious. There was cream cheese in the refrigerator, and so I decided a graham cracker peach and cheesecake pie sounded delicious. It was, and a little peach butter put it over the top. If there is no peach butter available, then it can be omitted.

Ingredients

For the graham cracker crust:

(As much as I love a moist graham cracker crust pie, I despise a dry one. If you think a few tablespoons of melted butter will increase your weight, you can add less, but everyone else will be sorry you did.)

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 cup melted butter

For the pie filling:

1 cup peach butter

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature

1 egg

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 tablespoon vanilla or other flavoring (optional)

2 to 3 medium peaches

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For the crust: Toss together the crumbs, sugar and butter. Press into a 9-inch springform or tart pan with removable bottom. A pie dish can be used, as in photograph, but the others make the pie easier to cut and serve and much prettier. Bake 15 minutes. Let cool.

For the filling: Melt the peach butter over low heat, (If it is thick, dilute with a bit of water to make it spreadable.) Cool. Add a thin layer of peach butter on top of the crust, saving a bit for the top.

To fill, beat the cream cheese with the egg and sugar until well mixed and smooth, using a food processor or whisk. Spread over the peach butter and crust. Peel and slice the peaches, arranging over the top of the cream cheese mixture. Don't worry if it looks a little ragged, as brushing with the peach butter will give it a plus in looks. Brush with the diluted peach butter.

Reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake 30 minutes or until cream cheese mixture is slightly puffy and lightly set. Remove from oven, cool briefly and remove the rim. If desired and any is left, brush with any remaining diluted peach butter. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes 8 wedges

Here is a puffy pancake that hollows out to hold fruit and cream. Peaches, alone or mixed with other fruits, cuddle up with whipped cream to make a delicious and easy spur-of-the-moment dessert whether for a simple Sunday night supper or a last-minute company dish. A bit of sugar in the pancake and waffle batter makes the crust brown quickly and evenly.

Ingredients

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Pinch salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1/4 lemon, juiced

For the garnish:

3 cups sliced peaches

1 cup heavy cream, whipped with 1/4 cup sugar

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Sift the flour with the salt and sugar. Combine the eggs, milk and vanilla, and pour into the flour mixture. Stir until batter is just blended. Melt the butter in a 9-inch nonstick skillet or a 9-inch round cake pan, coating bottom and sides. Pour the batter into the hot pan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. The pancake puffs and rises on the outside edges, but collapses when removed from the oven. Fold edges over in a scalloped fashion. Dust with the sugar, then sprinkle with the lemon juice. Fill or garnish with fresh fruit and whipped cream. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.