Clinging to tradition

Peach dessert celebrates summer at its sweetest, and most mysterious

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Peach crisp is a perfect summer dessert. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / July 8, 2010)

The peach sports two looks: freestone and clingstone. Cleave the freestone to reveal a single seed, as woody, hard and bitter as its cousin, the almond. Pry it out and marvel at the poisonous heart of the seemingly sunny peach.

Halve the clingstone peach at your peril. Trying to wrest the single seed from the grasp of the clingy clingstone peach is a spectacularly messy battle — one best fought with teeth and celebrated with pit-spitting prowess.

Which is why when peach season arrives, we approach the clingstone whole, saving the freestone for kitchen duty. The easygoing peach takes readily to orderly prep: blanching and skinning, slicing and sugaring, topping and baking. Hot from the oven, the baked peach wafts the scent of welcome.

This is the time of year when the home cook sharpens her knife, thinly slicing the distinction between pie (with crust) and cobbler (with biscuit) and crumble (with oat) and crisp (with nut), which is fine entertainment for the persnickety.

We're delighted by any recipe that infuses peach with almond. It reminds the fat fruit of its family roots, of its bitter edge, of the dark heart it clings to so fiercely. Warmed with almond extract, baked bubbly under a shower of chopped almonds, peach crisp celebrates summer at its sweetest, and most mysterious.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor.

leahreskin@aol.com

Peach crisp

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 8 servings

Topping:

3/4 cup slivered almonds

3/4 cup flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, in chunks

Filling:

3 pounds (about 8) ripe, fragrant freestone peaches

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 Toast: Spread nuts on a baking sheet and slide into a 350 degree oven until golden, 5 minutes. Let cool.

2 Cut: For topping, measure flour, both sugars and salt into the food processor. Pulse to combine. Add nuts. Pulse a few times to break up, not pulverize, nuts. Tumble in butter; pulse to crumbly. Chill.

3 Peel: For filling, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Set a bowl of ice water nearby. Lower in peaches; let simmer until skins loosen, 10 seconds. Lift out peaches and lower into ice water. Slip off and discard skins.

4 Slice: Working over a large mixing bowl (to catch juice), slice peaches into 1/2-inch thick crescents.

5 Thicken: Sprinkle peaches with sugar and flour; mix gently. Add extract; mix gently.

6 Bake: Scrape peach mixture into a 9-inch pie plate. Sprinkle on topping. Bake at 375 degrees, uncovered, until topping browns, fruit bubbles and the whole thing smells nutty and delightful, 40 minutes. Cool on a rack. Serve warm.
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