Seasonal Pantry: July is fruit nirvana for bakers

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The sweetest season is upon us, as berries of all kinds and succulent stone fruit are abundant on our vines and trees and in our farmers markets. Santa Rosa plums are plump and juicy, pluots are starting to appear, and strawberries are increasingly irresistible. One day soon, we will have Arctic Gem White Peaches from Dry Creek Peach and Produce.

It’s time to enjoy them now, before our first apples, the beloved Gravenstein, appear in a few weeks.

My preferred way of indulging in summer’s fruit harvest couldn’t be simpler: I eat them, sometimes chilled, sometimes not. As the season unfolds, I make chutney and shrubs, but not until I’ve had my fill of the fruit neat. Next come galettes and by the time Gravensteins ripen, I am ready to make thin-crusted tarts, my favorite way to prepare Gravs. I like stone fruit grilled, too, over the dying embers of an outdoor feast.

But there are so many ways to enjoy this bounty. Some of us prepare desserts we remember from our childhood — the pies, crisps and cobblers our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers made, if we were lucky.

Depending on our age and where we grew up, some of us remember the fruit desserts that were common in early America — Brown Betty, pandowdy, buckles, slumps, and, my favorite, grunts, named for the sound the fruit makes as it bubbles on the stove.

These desserts can all be traced back to that all-American indulgence, apple pie.

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Cobblers are very easy to make and require very little last minute attention.

If you put a cobbler into the oven just before you sit down to dinner, it will be ready by the time you are ready to serve salad, if you prefer salad after the main meal, as I do.

Take it out of the oven, let it rest, and then linger over the last of the wine and conversation. If there is any left, enjoy it for breakfast.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler

Makes 8 servings

4 cups strawberries, stemmed and sliced

1 pound rhubarb, washed, peeled, and cut into ½-inch pieces

1¼ cups sugar, plus more to taste and for the dough

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

For topping

1¾ cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

6 tablespoon (¾ stick) butter, cut into ½-inch cubes and chilled, plus more for the baking dish

¾ cup whole milk

In a large bowl, combine the strawberries, rhubarb, ¾ cup of the sugar, and the vanilla, and toss lightly. Cover and set aside for 1 hour. Taste the juices that have collected, and, if they are too tart, add an additional ¼ cup sugar. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

For the topping: Put the flour, ½ cup sugar, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl. Add the butter and, using your fingers or a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the milk and stir very quickly to blend; do not overmix.

Butter a 9-by-11-inch glass baking dish, and pour the fruit mixture into it, shaking the dish to spread the fruit evenly. Top with the batter, using a spatula to spread it over the surface of the fruit as best you can (it will smooth out during baking). Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar over the top and bake for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the fruit hot and bubbly.

Remove from the oven and let rest 10 to 15 minutes before serving neat or with vanilla ice cream.

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When I first began making this dessert, I used about a third of a vanilla bean and removed it before adding the dumpling dough. These days, though, I use a bit of vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste, which is more cost effective. There is a worldwide shortage of vanilla and the cost has soared.

White Peach Grunt

Makes 6 to 8 servings

8 ripe white peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, plus more to taste

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

— Pinch of ground cardamom

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspon baking soda

½ teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1/3 cup buttermilk, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon sugar mixed with ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Put the peaches, ⅓ cup sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and cardamom into a medium skillet — cast iron is ideal — and stir gently. Taste and add more sugar, a tablespoon at a time, if needed to suit your preference. Cover and let rest 30 minutes.

Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes, until the peaches have softened but are not falling apart.

While the peaches rest, make the dumpling dough. Put the flour, 2 tablespoons of sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a mixing bowl and stir well. Add the butter, stir again, and pour in the buttermilk. Stir quickly to form a soft, sticky dough that is slightly wetter than biscuit dough, using a bit more buttermilk if needed.

Use a large soup spoon to form dumplings of dough and set them on top of the simmering peaches. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar over the dumplings. Cover the skillet with a high-domed lid or a sheet of aluminum foil and steam over medium-low heat until the dumplings are set and the surface is dry when touched with a fingertip, about 15 minutes.

Uncover, remove from the heat and let rest for 5 or 10 minutes. Spoon the grunt into wide shallow bowls and enjoy hot.

Variations

To use yellow peaches, taste carefully and add as much sugar as needed; they likely will need more than white peaches need.

For a toasty crust, preheat an oven broiler and when the grunt is done, slip it under the broiler for 3 to 4 minutes, until the dumplings turn golden brown.

For berry grunt, use 6 to 7 cups of berries (blueberries, blackberries, olallieberries, boysenberries or a combination), add sugar to taste (from ½ to ¾ cup) and the grated zest of 1 lemon. Serve with berry ice cream.

For strawberry grunt, use 6 to 7 cups of ripe berries, stemmed and sliced, with sugar to taste and several turns of black pepper. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar and let rest 30 minutes before cooking. Add several turns of black pepper to the dumpling dough. Serve with French vanilla or black pepper ice cream.

For rhubarb grunt, use 6 to 7 cups rhubarb that you have peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces. Add sugar to taste (about 1 cup) and the juice of 1 lemon.

For strawberry-rhubarb grunt, use 4 cups sliced strawberries and 3 cups rhubarb (in 1-inch pieces) and sugar to taste, plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt.

If you like heat in your desserts, add 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger to yellow or white peaches. Cut 1 or 2 serranos lengthwise from tip to seed core, to open them up. Tuck them into white or yellow peaches with the other ingredients. After cooking, use tongs to remove and discard them. Serve with fresh basil ice cream.

To gild the lily, serve any grunt with creme fraiche that you have whipped with a whisk for a minute or two.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The New Cook’s Tour of Sonoma,” from which these recipes are adapted. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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