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Summer weekends are for rusticating. Sometimes, we head down to visit friends in southwestern Virginia, where a typical Saturday might be spent mowing a field, hiking up to the Blue Ridge Parkway … or lolling in a porch swing with an absorbing read and a long, tall glass of something cold.

Dinner is straightforward, often from the grill, and always delicious. On this last visit, we hadn’t thought far enough in advance to make a pie for dessert, and even a quick cobbler sounded like work—it was too hot to even think of turning on the oven. But in a household with three active boys, the freezer is always filled with ice cream. Really good ice cream, from a local dairy, the Homestead Creamery, which delivers dairy products, bread, and other staples once a week.

So peaches and vanilla ice cream it was. Everyone was happy, and I think my husband and 16-year-old Will went back for seconds.

There are occasions, though, when a little lily-gilding is called for, and that is where peach Melba comes in. Created by Auguste Escoffier in 1893 (celebrity chefs are really nothing new) for the famed lyric soprano Nellie Melba, the combination of poached peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a raspberry coulis, or sauce, is staggeringly simple*. In fact, I’ve always thought it interesting that it is a remarkably un-diva-like dish, unlike the Australia-born Helen (“Nellie”) Porter Mitchell, who took her Italian-sounding stage name (her debut role was as Gilda in Rigoletto) from her home city of Melbourne and who took the opera world by storm.

The New Jersey peaches we get in New York have been so deeply flavorful for the past couple of years that I don’t even bother to poach them. I don’t bother to blanch them to make removing their skins easier, either. Instead, I put them in a bowl, pour boiling water over them, and walk away for a few minutes. After draining, I run the peaches under cold water until cool enough to handle, and, with a little help from a paring knife, the skins slip right off. This method is much less fraught than blanching—no hovering over a steaming pot, for starters, or worrying about timing (do you start counting when you first add the peaches or when the water returns to a boil?). And, all too often, the turbulence of a rolling boil causes beautiful, unbruised peaches to bash into one another and hurt themselves.

I first had peach Melba with unpoached fruit at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, and I’ve never forgotten it. The peaches were from Al Courchesne at Frog Hollow Farm, and they had extraordinary perfume and flavor. What gives peach Melba its finesse, though, is the raspberry coulis. You can substitute blackberries, but, to my mind, nothing matches the rich, exquisite clarity of raspberries, except, perhaps, Dame Melba’s voice.

Peach Melba

Serves 6

I usually serve this with a plate of Jules Destrooper Almond Thins, my favorite store-bought cookie. They’re available at many supermarkets and at as well, although you have to buy a 12-pack. The sauce is very simple to prepare, although you could make dessert even easier by using a 10-ounce package of frozen raspberries in syrup; thaw them before puréeing.

For the raspberry coulis

2½ cups raspberries

A scant ¼ cup sugar, or to taste

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, or to taste

¼ teaspoon framboise (optional)

For the rest of the dessert

5 to 6 (depending on size)  firm-ripe peaches

Fresh lemon juice

About ¼ cup sugar, or to taste

1 quart of your favorite vanilla ice cream

In a blender or food processor, purée the raspberries, sugar, lemon juice, and framboise, if using. Pour the purée through a fine sieve into a bowl, pressing down on the solids with a rubber spatula. Discard the solids. Serve the sauce right away, at room temperature, or chill it for later use. Covered and refrigerated, it keeps 3 days.

Put the peaches in a large bowl and cover with boiling water; let them sit about 3 minutes. Transfer the peaches to a colander and run cold water over them. With a sharp paring knife, peel the peaches. Cut them into thin, elegant slices and put them in a bowl. Sprinkle them with lemon juice and add the sugar, gently tossing to coat the peaches. Let them sit 10 minutes or so, to give the sugar a chance to dissolve.

Put a few small scoops of ice cream in each of 6 bowls and drizzle with some of the raspberry coulis. Arrange the sliced peaches on top, then embellish with more coulis. Serve at once.


*Especially when you leave off the carved-ice sculpture of Lohengrin‘s swan for serving, which Escoffier intended as a thank-you for tickets to the opera. The singer was so delighted with her Pêches au Cygne (first made with strawberry purée) that the dish soon reappeared as Pêches Melba.

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