“These are peach,” I explained, flinching from the heat of the oven mitts as they grazed my arm.
“What about strawberry rhubarb?” asked Wrong Season.
“Rhubarb season is over, I’m afraid. Now it’s peach season.”
Wrong Season insisted. “I’ve had your strawberry rhubarb pie, with the lattice crust. I want to order a strawberry rhubarb pie for this Saturday.”
“It just so happens you’re in luck,” I said, indicating a pair of pies sitting in a pool of crimson juice on an adjacent rack. “One of those is for an order, the other is up for grabs. Strawberry rhubarb- the last hurrah.”
“But I don’t need the pie until Saturday.”
“This is it. I’m sorry, we won’t be getting any more rhubarb before Saturday, if at all. Take the pie home and let it cool down. Then you can keep it wrapped and refrigerated, reheating it gently on Saturday. It will be fine.”
It wasn’t fine for Wrong Season. She was flustered and unwilling to purchase a pie for Saturday on Thursday afternoon. I get it, it’s not the ideal scenario, but it’s pie, not world peace. Taking a moment to collect her fruit and lattice thoughts, Wrong Season shook her head. She then pointed to the peach pies. “What about peach? Are those the peach pies?”
“Still. Peach.” Perhaps not my finest customer relations response, but honest nonetheless. I waited for the pie light bulb to go on.
“Maybe… we will have peach. Yes! Let’s have peach. On Saturday- could we have a peach pie on Saturday? You’ll make it Saturday morning?”
“Of course,” I lied.
For a moment I was afraid Wrong Season might hug me.
“See you Saturday,” Wrong Season waved.
“Uh huh,” I nodded while mumbling the mantra, Rhubarb-Spring. Peach-Summer.
Tucked inside the walk-in refrigerator behind buckets of cold brew coffee sits a wooden crate of near ripe peaches. To generously fill one dozen 9” pie shells, nearly 36 pounds of peaches will have to fall on the blade of the paring knife. This is an exercise that will be repeated for the duration of peach season. I have no idea how many peach pies will exit the bakery between now and Labor Day but my wrist has a pretty good feel for it. What makes peach pie-ing all the more challenging at this time of year is the stubborn clingstone. The fruit from a clingstone refuses to surrender, hanging on to its pit for dear life.
The early harvest clingstone peaches will eventually make room for freestones later in the summer. Freestone peaches have more of a devil-may-care attitude, happy to slip out of their fruit with just a simple slice down the middle. This attribute makes them more popular, but in terms of flavor, a sweet ripe peach is more often about the variety and when they were picked, than the pit. From a baker’s vantage point, I’m all for ease of application. Freestone peaches surrender more readily with less of a struggle and fewer fingertip casualties. My favorite Red Haven freestone peaches have yet to make their way to the bakery. Until then, I will toil over what’s on hand.
Most people forgive the challenge of finding and pitting a sweet summer peach the moment they take their first sunny bite. They instinctively use the back of their hand to wipe away the juices dripping down their chin, casually tossing away the pit when the fruit is gone. I’m less cavalier about tossing peach pits because the truth is, peach pits and I go way back.
My grandmother and Jessie used to bake an open-faced pie in a large Nordicware cookie sheet with deep sides. One half of the pie was covered in peaches, the other half in blueberries. The peach peels, pits, and excess juices were cooked down with a drop of almond extract to create a shiny glaze. The fragrance created from this process was distinctly seasonal, unmistakably summer. Today this “slab” pie would be the hippest pie at the party, and the almond glaze made from almond pits would be uber cool. I’d also be commended for using every bit of the peach and start to feel pretty good about myself. That is until someone else would chime in, “Did you ever make peach pit ice cream? I had the most amazing peach pit ice cream served in a hollowed out peach half served on a bed of peach cotton candy…” Sure, I’ll get right on that.
Peach pits are a little bit like rhubarb leaves, dangerous if left in the wrong hands. Inside the hard shell of a peach pit is a small kernel, with an aromatic almond flavor. In French, the kernel is called noyau. It can be used to make almond extract, marzipan, even amaretto. The scary word on the street associated with peach pits is that they contain traces of cyanide. According to the brilliant pastry chef Stella Parks of BraveTart, noyaux (plural of noyau) contain something called amygdalin, which becomes hydro-cyanic acid when it is digested. Cooking the peach pits tempers the dangerous substance giving you the green light to use them in many recipes.
Despite spending multiple Sunday afternoons chomping on the last bit of sweet fruit clinging to peach pits, I have no recollection of Jessie issuing a peach pit advisory. It’s possible she mentioned, “You don’t want to break a tooth on that pit,” but other than cautioning against bruising the delicate fruit, peaches came with no warning attachments. I only wish my pie mentor had warned me about people desperately seeking rhubarb in peach season. Channeling my inner Jessie, I’m thinking a peach pit wrapped in a rhubarb leaf might make a lovely parting gift.