OBSESSION: PEACH RATAFIA
Roast chicken with lemons and sage is in the oven. Just-dug potatoes are simmering on the stovetop. We have had a run of what my mother would call “Champagne days”—cool and crisp, with high, cloudless blue skies. No Pol Roger or Gruet Brut in our fridge, alas, but wedged between a tub of gochujang and a bowl of thick bone-in pork chops (on sale!) bathing in brine for tomorrow night’s meal is a bottle of standard-issue Prosecco. Excellent.
No, not just excellent, but reason alone to turn to peach ratafia, the newest bottle on the drinks tray. We have actually been imbibing ratafias all summer; one friend, inspired by an ode to the homemade liqueurs by Pete Wells a few years ago, has worked his way through the season’s bounty with great verve (blackberry and lime was one favorite) and is always eager to share. Those ratafias have inexpensive white or red wine as a base, with vodka added as a preservative. They are wonderful served slightly chilled, as an aperitif.
The peach ratafia I’m talking about is different. Based on brandy and peach pits (for color and an almondy flavor), it has more in common with the ratafias of the Georgian and Regency eras, which today have their own Facebook pages. I would kill to have a conversation with Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer about that fact.
But instead I turned to Gerald Asher, Gourmet’s wine editor for 30 years and the author, most recently, of A Vineyard in my Glass, for context. “Ratafia was originally the unfermented sweet grape juice preserved and stopped from fermenting by adding brandy,” he explained. That brandy, he noted, was usually young, fiery stuff, not aged Cognac. “The French—women, mostly—drank a small glass of ratafia as an aperitif, in the same way the French drink a small glass of ruby port, or concoctions like Lillet or Dubonnet.”
At any rate, ratafia traveled to the Colonies early on. Joe Dabney writes in The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking that, “In 1756 the noted Charleston planter Eliza Lucas Pinckney recorded a Ratafia recipe on her diary, calling for seventy-five peach kernels, two cups brandy and a half cup of sweet wine, a half cup of orange flower water, and a half cup of sugar.”
And Matthew Rowley, author of Moonshine!, wrote about this old-fashioned cordial, a.k.a. ratafia aux noyau in New Orleans, in his Whiskey Forge blog. He cleverly asked a restaurant chef to save peach pits for him, and soon had enough for a small batch. Matt likes to enjoy ratafia almost as he would a syrup. “Use it in generous quantities to moisten a cake thoroughly—maybe an almond cake to play off the marzipan flavors of the peach pits. Or with babas.” he said. “And ratafia remains an underappreciated component of mixed drinks—partly because it takes a while to macerate and age, and partly because the lurid red commercial brands most readily available are so bad that drinkers shy away from it.”
I wished I had thought to ask a chef to stockpile peach pits for me; by early August I had only amassed a small bowlful, but found myself poring over them as intently as Tennessee folk artist Roger Smith, who turns the rugged nuggets into miniature sculptures. I was ready to put peach ratafia on next summer’s to-do list, but then discovered an interesting-sounding recipe in Helen Witty’s Fancy Pantry. It only calls for a few peach kernels in addition to sliced fresh peaches. I imagined what those peaches, aged in brandy, would taste like over ice cream, or perhaps embedded in an upside-down cake, and I pounced.
Aside from the macerating time, the only difficult thing about making ratafia is cracking open the peach pits to get at the kernels within. You can wrap the pits in a kitchen towel (to contain the shards) and take a hammer to them, but a vise is really much more efficient. Then I combined all the elements in two canning jars and left them to get along with one another for six weeks, giving the jars an encouraging shake every so often.
Last week, I removed the fruit and peach kernels. Straining the ratafia through a coffee filter gave me time to rummage for a stemless cordial glass, in this household, most often used as a bud vase. The ratafia, which left a slight film on the side, was potent and sweet, very sweet, but a deep, rich, faintly nutty finish saved it from itself. I could decant it into smaller jars and give it away for Christmas. Or not.
Adapted from Fancy Pantry, by Helen Witty (Workman, 1986)
Makes about 5 cups
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed light-brown sugar
½ cup water
3 cups sliced ripe peaches (start with about 1½ pounds), peach pits reserved and more added if available
1/8 teaspoon ground mace
1 quart good-quality brandy
1. Combine the granulated sugar, the brown sugar, and the water in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil and boil the syrup briskly, uncovered, for 3 minutes. Cool the syrup.
2. Meanwhile, divide the peach slices between two 1-quart glass canning jars. Crack the peach pits (you will need a hammer or a vise). Extract the kernels and add them to the peaches.
3. Stir the cooled syrup, the mace, and the brandy together until they are completely mixed. Pour the mixture over the the peaches and stir the whole business. Cover airtight. Set the containers aside for at least a month and preferably 6 weeks. Stir or shake the contents once in a while.
4. Strain the cordial through a fine-meshed sieve lined with a coffee filter into a bowl and bottle it (if corking, use new corks only). Refrigerate the fruit.