The end of summer is bittersweet. In the Pacific Northwest at midsummer it gets dark at 10 p.m., but by the end of August the days get shorter, the nights cooler, and the rain begins to return. This summer in Seattle has been glorious, and Labor Day weekend has given us a last burst of sunshine. Next week, however, it is going to rain. And rain. Hello autumn. Fortunately the markets are still full of splendid peaches, nectarines, and beautiful Italian plums, the last taste of summer.
I was in the Yakima Valley, in Eastern Washington, this weekend for a wedding. Yakima Valley is peach country. (It is also wine country, but that is a story for another day.) In Union Gap, a tiny town whose largest employer is a fruit packing company, I lost my mind and bought 25 pounds of canning peaches. At home, I spread them out to ripen and thought, “I had better do something about those nectarines.”
The nectarines. A sack of the most exquisite, fragrant, floral, heartstoppingly delicious donut nectarines, which I bought last weekend while visiting my sister in Portland, Oregon. I planned this dessert for those nectarines, and even attempted a trial run while in Portland. This version is an improvement upon what I made there. I knew I wanted to do something with caramel, and in Portland, I lightly sautéed the nectarines with brown sugar and butter and then chilled the fruit. It was not quite perfect, because the cooking muted the bright, summery flavor. This time, I macerated my nectarines with sugar but did not cook them, and added the syrup I extracted to a butter caramel. The shortcakes are a little sweet, and just a little salty, like Southern biscuits, and are made with cake flour which, I have deduced, makes them rise less, but produces the most wonderfully tender biscuit. I leave my whipped cream almost entirely unsweetened. The sugar makes the nectarines soften slightly and become glossy, but they still have the taste of fresh-picked fruit. The completed dessert is bright, delicate, and tastes like everything I love about summer.
This dessert requires a little advance planning, as you’ll want to macerate your fruit for at least four hours, or overnight. Otherwise, it is a fairly quick dessert, and a good one for parties, as you can make almost all of the components in advance. (Do make your biscuits no more than a couple of hours before you plan to serve them, as they are best when they are fresh; also, the caramel, since it contains fruit acids, should be kept warm until served to prevent crystallization.) You can probably make this with peaches if you can’t find very sweet nectarines, but if you use peaches you’ll want to peel them by blanching them in boiling water for about 15-30 seconds before macerating. (I leave the skin on nectarines for color.) When serving, pour about two tablespoons of the caramel over each finished plate, then put the rest of the caramel in a pitcher so your guests can pour on more if they wish.
You will need:
A food processor or pastry cutter
A cookie sheet
A biscuit cutter (you can also use a juice glass, or you can make drop biscuits)
For the fruit
650 grams (about 1.4 pounds) very ripe sweet nectarines (pitted weight) sliced
Two tablespoons sugar
For the biscuits
1.5 cups (180 grams) cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons (113 grams) very cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
½ cup buttermilk
For the caramel
½ cup water
½ cup sugar
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon (about 50 grams) unsalted butter
About a cup of additional whipping cream
Additional sugar, if desired
Combine the cut-up nectarines and two tablespoons of sugar in a bowl, toss to coat, and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius), and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Combine the dry ingredients for the biscuits in a food processor or large bowl. Add the butter and pulse/mix until the mixture resembles crumbs. Slowly add the buttermilk and pulse just until the mixture starts to form balls. Do not over-mix. Turn the dough immediately out onto a work surface dusted with flour, and pat using your hands to about a one-inch thickness, trying to handle the dough as little as possible. Cut with the biscuit cutter and place on the parchment-lined cookie sheet at least two inches apart. (if making drop biscuits, drop by double tablespoons.) Bake in the center of your oven for 12-15 minutes, or until the tops of the biscuits are pale golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
To make the caramel, first strain the liquid from the macerated fruit into a bowl. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat over medium-low heat, without stirring. You can swirl occasionally to melt any crystals that may form on the sides. When the sugar has fully dissolved and the syrup is golden and bubbling, carefully add the heavy cream, then the reserved nectarine syrup and the butter. Reduce heat to low and whisk constantly until the caramel has thickened and darkened slightly. (Remember, it will continue to thicken as it cools.)
Put a metal or glass bowl in the freezer to chill for whipping the cream. When you are ready to serve the biscuits, whip the cream with no more than a tablespoon of additional sugar until it is stiff using a hand held mixer or whisk. To plate, split the biscuits, and put a large dollop of whipped cream on the bottom half, then pile on a generous amount of nectarines. Place the top half of the biscuit over the top, and drizzle on a couple of tablespoons of warm nectarine butter caramel sauce.
Makes about six servings.