Just Peachy!

I have a strong inclination toward hygge culture. This is not merely that I like being comfortable and among friends… or maybe it is… because those are far more profound than our mainstream EuroWestern culture allows… but I tend to think of it in more philosophical terms. Being comfortable and among friends is precisely the point to life. It may manifest in an obsession with root cellars and squash, knitting and wearing warm socks, inventing reasons to gather in celebration (and “no reason at all” is an excellent reason); but there is the underlying idea that this is what we are born to do — to be fat, jovial hobbits living in cozy burrows with a garden full of potatoes and bright flowers and butterflies.

I am quite resilient in the face of adventure and adversity — which I feel are pretty much the same things — but I prefer being home where every minute of every day is amazing and yet generally lacking in cold feet and hard beds and empty bellies. Like most non-human mammals, I can cope with such things, but I do everything in my prodigious power to avoid them. I surely do not go seeking out tribulation to make some sort of point about moral strength or mastery over nature — which I do not much feel are necessary or, indeed, real. Again, like most non-human mammals.

In the pursuit of comfort, the effect of small things is remarkably huge. On the other hand, you don’t get all that much more out of effort or expense once you reach that comfort threshold. So, for example, a warm pair of socks that you knit yourself (or accept from a friend’s knitting needles) is about as good as it gets when it’s January and you come home from work (and shoveling snow) with ice cubes for feet. Going the expensive tech route to thermally insulated, heated socks (or whatever they’ve got out there in the world these days) is not much of an advancement in foot warmth for a rather large increase in cost — to you and to rest of the world. So you’re better off going with the handmade warm fuzzies — and so is the planet. This is not a coincidence.

My point is that pursuing comfort and conviviality tends to be good for you and for the globe. Think about it… when you immerse yourself in nesting, you are generally doing things that are good for you, things that improve the health and happiness around you. But most of these things are beneficial to more folks than just you. When you create a garden, you are helping to nourish millions of other life forms. Not just the plants you want, but the creatures in the soil, the insects and birds (and, yes, the rodents and rabbits) who find food there, the people in your neighborhood who take delight in watching it grow. You are also reducing what you are buying from more toxic systems of food or flower production and so reducing the harm you cause just by shopping at the supermarket.

These are all good things, but they aren’t the reason you garden. The reason you are gardening is probably just that you want to garden. At most you might have harvest goals. You are doing good for the world just as a corollary. And this is true of so many home-making pursuits. It is generally true that when you put care into your home, into your life, you reduce your harmful impact on the rest of the world. Isn’t that fantastic!

Also it should be noted that when you put care into your home-life, you are also more present in your place. You become more tied to your place. You grow roots. This has fringe benefits also. For one thing, you don’t need as much to divert your attention. Your life is its own entertainment. For another, you find you don’t much want to go places. There is just too much interesting stuff happening in your life. So you don’t waste as much time and other resources on traveling around. And you are far more likely to be happy, to actually appreciate the effort or expense you put into making comfort in your own place. You get to keep that. It’s not temporary, a vacation with an ending (except for the bills…). And whatever relationships you build in the process are permanent and durable. You are making your life as you want it to be, not escaping your life as it is.

So I am unapologetically fluffy. I like my garden and my kitchen and my warm socks. I love my window seat and my library and my evolving root cellar. I really love my freezer and the abundance of delicious food inside it. I like all these things and would like them even if that was all there is to it. But I also like that all these things make my impact on this world much less harmful than if I were to try to find pleasure in the more normal pursuits for my culture. I suppose I am lucky in that I don’t find much pleasure in the more normal pursuits, but I wonder how many people actually do… I wonder if it’s just that people don’t know any better… that we’ve all been enculturated to do what makes profits for others and steered away from doing what makes happiness for ourselves. I sort of think we’d all be happier if we took up hygge culture and became hobbits. And the planet would be happier as well… though I imagine a large number of industries would just implode.

In any case, here is my contribution toward hygge for the week: I made peach butter.

Now, most people have eaten apple butter. Some folks like pumpkin butter. But I like to make this caramelized fruit spread out of produce that does not keep as well in the root cellar as apples and pumpkins. I’ve made tomato butters, plum butter, and even a figgy thing that was sort of like the insides of a Fig Newton, but much more figgy. None of these fruits will keep well, so I turn them into fruit spreads that do keep. I also make jams, preserves and chutneys, but I like butters for their sheer ease and the much lower sugar content than many other fruit preserves.

Peaches don’t keep at all. In fact, what you find for sale in the grocery store these days is unripened fruit primarily because allowing a peach to mature fully puts it approximately five seconds from rot. (Might be exaggerating… but not much.) So if you want to keep the peach harvest, or if you just want to taste peaches the other eleven months of the year, they need to be processed. And peach butter is one of the best techniques for preserving that bright, ripened-peach flavor with a minimum of sugar. Plus it makes your house smell heavenly for hours!

In the recipe below, you can adjust the quantities to suit your own tastes. Some recipes just cook the fruit with stick cinnamon or other spice chunks that are removed before storing. This reduces the strength of the spices, obviously, but I think it also goes against the point of adding spices. That they taste great is secondary; they’re in our food primarily as preservative. (Actually, same goes for granulated sugar.) In fact, we might have developed a taste for these antimicrobial plant bits because foods that contain them are not very likely to make us sick. This is especially true in warm climates where there are only a few options for keeping decay away. (And now you see why equatorial cooking tends to be more spicy…)

So this is how I preserved the happy peach harvest for this summer.

Peach Butter

Ingredients

4 quarts of chopped peaches
8 pounds of ripe peaches
     (about 30 medium peaches, or 4 qts pitted & chopped)
1/2 cup citrus juice
     (I used 4 small blood oranges and 1 lemon because that's what I had)
2 cups sugar
4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp powdered ginger
1 scant tsp salt

Instructions

8 pounds of peaches, chopped

Remove the peach peels in whatever way works for you. If you like, you can use the old standby method of blanching the fruit in boiling water for about 90 seconds. This loosens the skins. But it also requires a lot more time and effort and generates much more heat in the kitchen than necessary.

Peach skins are already loose when the peaches are good and ripe. (And they are both good and ripe and available in bulk quantity for low cost when it is harvest time.) Simply slip a sharp knife under the skin and pull gently. You may lose some flesh, but not much. Also I’m actually not sure if boiling hard, not-quite-ripe fruit will make it easier to peel. So I guess I don’t see the point of this step. In other recipes, blanching is used to stop the ripening process on preserved fruit and veg that will not be cooked much — for example, frozen peach slices — and loosened skin is a side effect. That is assuredly not the case with this recipe. It will be well cooked!

Remove the pits and chop the fruit into chunks. Most of the fruit will break down in the long cooking, but I still either chop it before cooking or use the immersion blender near the end. This time I did both. (I almost always do both for apple butter also.)

Put all the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pot. I used my Dutch oven, but you could use a slow cooker and more time for the same results.

Simmering peaches

Bring to a low boil over medium heat. Cover and cook until the fruit becomes very soft and the sugars begin to develop a syrup. The color should still be bright. This took about 35 minutes in my Dutch oven, but go less by the timer than by the consistency. You don’t want to overcook the fruit at this stage. It will not develop the complex caramelized flavor if it cooks too quickly. (No idea why… organic chemistry was never my strong suit…)

When the peaches are soft and the liquid is syrupy, turn down the heat to as low as your cooking tool will go. Cover the pot, but let it breathe a little. Setting the lid slightly off-center to leave a small gap on one edge works well. A slow cooker can be set to low and allowed to cook down on its own for up to nine hours. Stove-top cooking will take less time, but you have to watch the heat. Periodically stir up the butter to keep it evenly warm, but never boiling or burning. You want it just hot enough to slowly cook off the water. This took about five hours in the Dutch oven.

Now, those who have made apple butter are probably wondering why I didn’t use an apple butter pan. These are heavy-bottomed, broad and shallow and of course perfectly suited to making apple butter. I do use this pan for apple butter which will cook down and caramelize properly and higher temperatures. (I also use it for making chutneys.) For other fruits, I use something with a lid to help keep the mixture warm on very low heat over a very long time period. I think this probably helps to preserve the flavor as well, though it does increase the time it takes to cook off the water. So you can play with that to see what works best for you.

Peach butter cooked down to “mahogany”

It is done when it’s very thick, almost a paste, not a runny sauce. It should be reduced by 1/3 to 1/2 in volume, and it should be a warm brown with a hint of the original orange — The Old Farmer’s Almanac folks called this color “mahogany”. My box of crayons was not that fancy…

If you are going to give this away (it makes excellent holiday gifts!), then you’ll need to can the butter. Ladle the butter into hot, sterilized pint jars. Boil in a water bath canner for 10 minutes. (Adjust for elevation.) And then store the jars in a cool, dry place for up to one year.

I plan on eating my peach butter myself. At most I’ll be sharing it with people who come to eat at my table. So I didn’t bother with the heat and the extra cooking. I let the butter cool in the fridge and then scooped it into freezer containers. 

Even with the large tub that I left in the fridge for eating now, this recipe yielded 4 pints to pack away in the freezer — more than enough for a winter of peachy delight!

And there is nothing more warming than the taste of summer spread over warm bread… well, there are those socks. Which is what I’ll be making when the garden starts winding down.

Peach butter on… zucchini bread… what else!

©Elizabeth Anker 2022