Caramelized peach sorbet – no ice cream machine required

I’d been thinking of this recipe for three years at least. At a restaurant I particularly loved, L’Utopie, which unfortunately closed last year, desserts often featured all sorts of interesting ice creams (including “nature” – i.e., no flavor added, which made you realize that vanilla really is a flavor, not the “default”, neutral variety of ice cream). Talking with the chef, Stéphane Modat, I suddenly got the idea that using caramelized fruit in a sorbet would give it an interesting extra layer of flavor.

Peaches seemed like one of the most interesting candidates, and when I came back from the Niagara region, this week, with the generous gift of a whole box of peaches, the idea of trying to make that caramelized peach sorbet came back to me. So off I went.

I picked five very ripe peaches and cut them in half, taking the stone out but leaving the skin on. I set the halves, skin down, with a little water, in a Pyrex baking dish, set the oven on broil and heated it to 375°C, placing the peaches on the middle  rack so that they would grill relatively slowly. (I only had room for nine halves in the dish, so that was 4 1/2 peaches, in the end)

After a few minutes, I took the peaches out of the oven and spread butter over them. I cut off a spoonful of cold butter, picked it up with a fork and then rubbed the butter over the warmed-up peaches, allowing me to put a small, even coat on all the halves. I then grated some hard maple sugar  on top of the peaches and set them back in the oven.

A significantly-caramelized half peach

The peaches wound up being in the oven for close to two hours, evaporating a fair bit of water and caramelizing well – even a little too much, really. I was in the middle of a little writing rush, so I probably left them about 20 minutes too long. As the picture shows, I stopped them just short of burning.

For next time, I might turn the heat down to 325°F and leave them longer, for a more gradual caramelizing process.

A caramelized peach, with the skin and the overcooked bits easily peeled off.

However, that didn’t cause any major problems. As I peeled the skin off the peaches, after letting them cool down, the parts that were dark brown also came off pretty much like a skin, so there was little loss and no issues of brown bits floating around the sorbet – which would probably have been tasty, but certainly unseemly.

The next step is to mix the peaches with a simple syrup. To determine how much I needed, I weighed the peeled peaches: about 400 grams (a little under a pound). Having looked around the Interwebs for comparisons, I figured this particular French recipe for sorbet made without an ice cream machine (which is what I was doing) seemed to have good proportions. The recipe calls for the syrup to be made from 180 grams (a bit less than a cup) of sugar and 300 ml (10 ounces) of water. Stir the sugar in, bring to a boil, voilà.

Puréed fruit and simple syrup - and maybe a touch of lemon juice - are all it takes to make sorbet

However, as I was preparing the syrup and puréeing the peaches with an immersion blender, I realized that the ratio couldn’t be exactly the same for my caramelized peach sorbet. Making a sorbet that will melt in your mouth without being cloying is a nice balancing act. If you just use fruit, it would be very crystallized and tough to chew on. And if you use too much sugar, it would feel heavy and sticky. However, the ratios I was looking at were for fresh fruit, whereas in this case the sugars were concentrated by cooking – I estimated that the peaches had lost about 25% of their weight. As the syrup cooled down, I made a guestimate: two thirds of the syrup (120 g of sugar, 200 ml of water) should do it. And as I was making a whole batch of syrup, if I saw that the sherbet crystallized too much, I could always add some half way through freezing. There was one advantage to not using an ice cream machine, in this case.

Once the syrup was practically at room temperature, I mixed it in with the puréed peaches, set it in a pyrex oven dish and put it in the freezer. After an hour, when the sides were starting to thicken, I gave it a good stir with a fork to even out the temperature. After another 45 minutes or so, I pulled the almost-frozen sorbet out of the freezer, quickly mixed it with the immersion blender in a bowl I had placed in the freezer to keep everything as cold as possible, and returned it to its dish and the freezer.

By that time, it was late, I was tired and went to bed, and let the sorbet finish freezing without further ado. The frozen pieces I had tasted melted appropriately on the tongue, so the proportions seemed right (if in doubt, add another ounce or two of syrup). It probably would have been even more unctuous if I had done another round of mixing, but this was enough to produce the desired results.

And boy are those results desirable. This is simply the best sorbet I’ve ever made, and one of the best frozen treats I’ve tasted, ever. The caramelizing process gives a more intense, rich flavor and aroma to the sorbet, reminding me of a pêche de vigne ice cream I tasted at Berthillon, a legendary Paris glace and sorbet maker. (Pêche de vigne is a particularly tasty, red-fleshed peach variety from southern France.)

For best results, put the sorbet in the fridge for 20-30 minutes before serving, to soften it up a bit. Serve with blueberries, which provide a lovely color contrast and also a tangy touch that highlights the sorbet’s luscious flavors. An almond cookie or tart couldn’t hurt, either. And neither could a glass of sweet muscat or bubbly moscato d’Asti. I’ll bet the moscato (or some prosecco) and a scoop of sorbet would also make an interesting variation on the bellini, the famous venitian cocktail.

I’m getting the feeling that I may caramelize another batch of peaches, freeze them as is, and pull them out later this fall to make another batch of the sorbet and put a little summer in a bowl as the leaves start falling.

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