Surprise! Look what’s inside! It’s a dessert that’s kind of a cross between a cookie and a cake. It’s made to look like a peach (pesca) and filled with a pastry cream. I first ate these decades ago in Italy when my cousin Lucia served them, and I’ve been wanting to make them ever since.
Fortunately, I found the recipe in the terrific cookbook “My Calabria” by Rosetta Costantino. The book is filled with beautiful photos, wonderful recipes and lots of information about Calabria, the region that is located in Italy’s “toe.” It’s a region that sadly, is frequently bypassed by tourists on their way to more well-known areas, but Calabria offers so much in the way of history, art, beautiful sights and great food that it merits a visit. It also happens to be the region my father’s family hails from, so that’s reason enough to grab my interest. Even if your family isn’t from Italy, and your only trip there may be only an armchair visit, once you see this cookbook, I think you’ll agree it’s one of the best cookbooks on regional Italian cooking available. For the record, I haven’t been paid to endorse the book. I just think it’s a really well written, well-photographed and well-researched cookbook.
Anyway, back to the peaches. I made them to take to the annual picnic held by my Italian chit-chat group yesterday and they were a big hit.
The recipe makes 24 peaches, and my basket came home empty. They’re not at all hard to make, but they are time-consuming. Figure on two or three hours from start to finish. Let me take you through the process.
I forgot to photograph making the pastry cream. But take my word for it, it’s easy. You should make the cream before you start the cookies, so it can have time to cool. After the cookies are cooled, you fill the shallow cut-out area with the pastry cream. Place two filled cookies together, and when they’re all filled, let them sit in the refrigerator an hour or so. They’ll be firmer and stick together better when you dip them in the liqueur. Add food coloring to the liqueur to get the desired shade of peach, then dip the cookie into the liqueur and roll it in sugar. Use a toothpick to pierce a small hole on top, and insert some leaves. I used actual peach tree leaves, courtesy of a total stranger who lives a few blocks from me. I walk by the house frequently and I knew the people living there had to be Italian, judging by the large vegetable garden and fruit trees dominating the yard. The lady of the house, who obviously had been working in her kitchen, since she arrived at the door wearing an apron, told me in her heavily accented Italian, to help myself to whatever I wanted.
The leaves really gave the peaches an even more realistic look, but you may not be as lucky as I was, to have an accommodating stranger with a peach tree in her backyard. If you aren’t, then search out some lemon verbena leaves, which also resemble peach tree leaves, or use mint leaves, which are easy to find this time of year.
Oh and back to those little “cookie cones” that I cut out from inside the cookie. I used some of them, along with some leftover cream, to make a “peach tiramisu” in a dessert glass. Just layer some of the cream, some of the “cones,” a sprinkling of liqueur and some cut-up fruit in a dessert cup, then repeat the process, ending with fruit on top. I would have used fresh peaches, had they been ripe and in season, but the mango I had in the house was a nice substitute.
Pesche Con Crema
From “”My Calabria” by Rosetta Costantino
For the Pastry Cream
- 2 cups whole milk
- Zest of 1 lemon, removed in large strips with a vegetable peeler (I didn’t use lemon zest at all, but instead, used a vanilla bean. I also added 1 T. almond extract.)
- 4 large egg yolks
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
For the Dough
- 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 3 large eggs
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
For Assembling Peaches
- 1/2 cup light rum or 6 tablespoons Italian maraschino liqueur plus 2 tablespoons peach schnapps (I used peach schnapps and no other liqueur since I wanted the peach flavor to dominate.)
- Red and yellow food coloring
- 1 cup sugar, or more as needed for coating
- Fresh peach leaves or decorative sugar or chocolate leaves
Make the pastry cream: In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring milk and lemon zest to a simmer over medium heat. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale yellow; add flour and whisk until well combined.
Remove lemon zest from milk and discard; slowly whisk hot milk into egg mixture. Return mixture to saucepan and place over medium heat; cook, stirring constantly, until cream thickens and begins to boil.
Transfer pastry cream to a large bowl; cover with plastic wrap, pressing down on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool completely.
Make the dough: In a large bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder. Whisk eggs in another large bowl. Add sugar and whisk to combine. Whisk in milk, butter, and lemon zest until smooth. Gradually add flour mixture, mixing with a fork, until dough is smooth and stiff. Let dough rest for 5 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with nonstick baking mats; set aside.
Using a lightly mounded tablespoon of dough, roll the dough firmly between your palms to make a smooth round ball, about the size of a walnut. Repeat process, taking care to make sure all the balls are fairly uniform in size. Place balls on prepared baking sheets spacing about 1 inch apart; you should be able to fit 24 balls on each baking sheet. Flatten tops slightly with your fingertips.
Transfer to oven and bake until bottoms are lightly browned, about 15 minutes; tops will remain pale. Transfer to a rack and let cool slightly.
Assemble the peaches: While the cookies are still warm, use a small, sharp knife to cut a circle about the size of a quarter on the bottom (flat) side of each cookie, taking care not to crack the edges. Use the tip of the knife to scrape out enough crumbs to make hollow and hold about 1 teaspoon pastry cream. Set cookies aside.
Place rum or maraschino liqueur and schnapps in a small bowl. Add enough red and yellow food coloring to create your desired shade of peach; set aside. Fill a shallow bowl with sugar; set aside.
Fill each hollowed-out cookie with 1 teaspoon filling. Sandwich two cookies together so that the filling comes just to the edge, taking care not to crack or break. Using a pastry brush, brush "peach" with colored liquor and roll in sugar to coat. Transfer to a large airtight container and repeat process with remaining cookies, liqueur, and sugar. Cover container and transfer to refrigerator; let chill overnight.
Just before serving, pierce each "peach" with a toothpick where the two cookies come together and insert the stem of a peach leaf. Alternatively, you can garnish cookies with decorative or chocolate leaves.