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Henry James: Vanilla Ice Cream with Brandied Peaches

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Around the middle of August, when vacations are past and sunset creeps up noticeably earlier every evening, end-of-summer anxiety sets in. How could I have let this happen? I didn't have nearly enough picnics! Or take enough strolls through the park! Or eat all the corn, cherries, and peaches that summer demands! Suddenly, every weekend is wasted unless it includes at least one rooftop meal and one -- okay, two -- stone-fruit desserts.

If that seems overly dramatic, you should hear Henry James tell it. Born and raised in Manhattan, he would run errands with his mother to Washington Market, where farmers unloaded their produce onto the Hudson piers. He was struck by the bounty of summer there, "bushels of peaches in particular, peaches big and peaches small, peaches white and peaches yellow," he wrote in A Small Boy and Others. "Heaps of them, the high-piled receptacles at every turn, touched the street as with a sort of southern plenty."

When James wrote about losing the fruit of summer, though, he wasn't just bummed there'd be no more pie for a while. In typical Jamesian fashion, the end of the market was a reminder of the passing of youth and (if we want to get really profound) of a bygone era. "What did the stacked boxes and baskets of our youth represent but the boundless fruitage of that more bucolic age of the American world ...? Where is that fruitage now? Where are the peaches d'antan?"

Elegies like that make me feel like I should get to pondering Questions of Significance, not of granita recipes. But then I remember that James' love of summer produce wasn't entirely symbolic. In 1874, preparing to return home from a trip to Germany, he implored his mother, "Be sure about Sept. 4 to have on hand a goodly store of tomatoes, ice-cream, corn, melons, cranberries and other indigenous victuals." Whenever I visit my family in California, I make practically the same request. And every Sunday, my mother and I make a run to the farmers' market. There, even in winter, when my New York market stalls are all brown root vegetables, the stands still overflow with the colors of an everlasting summer.

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For the James family, canning peaches was one way to keep that taste of summer all year round. Add a little brandy to the syrup before canning them, and you have an extra-special treat; spooned over ice cream, they were James' favorite dessert. "If they were rather a 'party dish' it was because they made the party whenever they appeared, and when ice-cream was added ... they formed the highest revel we knew," he wrote.

If you'd like to can your own peaches, you can get tips from The American Housewife (1878) and Amanda Hesser. But for those of us too impatient to wait until winter, this shortcut version has all the booziness and none of the botulism.

When the teenage James was in school in Geneva, he complained to a friend about the inadequate size of the scoops, only "twice as large as a peach pit! Be thankful you are born in our free and enlightened country." So be generous with the ice cream. It's the American way.

Vanilla Ice Cream:
(Adapted from David Lebovitz)

1 cup whole milk
2/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
2 cups heavy cream
5 egg yolks, room temperature

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, add milk and sugar and stir until sugar is dissolved. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into milk with a paring knife, then add bean pod to milk. Cover, remove from heat, and let sit 1 hour.

2. Set up an ice bath by placing a 2-quart bowl in a larger bowl partially filled with ice and water. Pour cream into 2-quart bowl.

3. In a separate small bowl, whisk egg yolks. Rewarm milk mixture over low heat. Add egg yolks, stirring constantly, until the mixture forms a custard thick enough to coat the spatula.

4. Strain custard into cream, removing vanilla bean pod, and stir mixture over the ice bath until cool. Refrigerate to chill thoroughly, preferably overnight. Freeze custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Brandied Peaches:

4 medium peaches
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons brandy

1. Peel peaches: Prepare a large bowl of ice water and set aside. Bring another large pot of water to a boil. Cut a shallow "X" in the bottom of each peach and submerge in boiling water 1 minute. Remove peaches and plunge into ice water bath. Peel off peach skins and cut flesh into 1/4-inch slices.

2. In a medium saucepan, combine peaches, brown sugar, and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until peaches are soft enough to cut through with a spoon, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add brandy, stirring to combine. Serve warm over ice cream.

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