Peaches in disguise
Our story begins in New York. Or Italy. Or Russia. Who knows.
Thanks to Twitter I got to know Mark (@blinderland) who cooks and bakes great stuff in New York (and also sells it! For my New York readers: every Saturday and Sunday in Travers Park, corner of 77th and 34th Ave. in Jackson Heights). Right before last Christmas Mark asked me if I know anything about pastries that are called “Peaches” and served on holidays and other happy occasions of the Russian community. Since the pastries appear on many websites under its Italian name – Pesche dolci – Mark wanted to know if I can scrap some details from my Italian sources.
Luckily for everyone, we have just arrived at my mother-in-law’s house in Calabria, who is the prime source for answers to such questions. Once I asked her if she knew anything about that she looked at me astonished since unknowingly she planned to prepare exactly these pastries for the upcoming holiday. What an awesome coincidence!
This is the right place to let Mark tell his story:
“Two years ago, I rushed through the door of the Adriatic Meat Market on the Astoria side of Broadway in Queens. "Let me have 6 peaches, please" I signaled towards the tray in the window. That tray made me double back after I already passed the store by a few yards. "You know these aren't real peaches, it's cookies", the seller said still in her chair, “I get many people here who think it's the fruit, it's cookies with jam. Very hard to make, I'm the only one who sells them in all New York, you know them".
"I know them, I know them very well"
She started arranging the cookies in a small white box. In the meantime, I told her about my mom, and how she made these cookies on special occasions, specifically when she wanted to impress some guests. It did the job, the Persiki plates would always empty the quickest. “Persiki” is the Russian word for peaches, and also the name of these cookies - for obvious reasons. This surprised her, "In Croatia, we call them Breskvice, I didn't know people make them in other countries".
I didn't know they made them in Croatia, either. I was aware these cookies were very popular in the former Soviet Union countries, but if I'm honest, I've never seen them outside of my mother's kitchen. I absolutely didn't expect to see them in Astoria, a neighborhood historically dominated by Greek immigrants for the past 60 years.
Astoria has a diverse population, and many immigrants from the Arab Peninsula, Turkey, Morocco, and the Balkan countries have settled in the neighborhood and made it the kebab capital of NYC. It would be an understatement to say I was surprised to see the peach cookies in the storefront of the Adriatic Meat Market. But a surprise is part of the DNA of the peach cookies, especially when they're made properly with streaks of pink and yellow coloring. They're softer than they look, and then there's the filling.
Each peach cookie is constructed of two cookies attached by a filling. In the Soviet Union it was often Sgushonka, the Russian word for dulce de leche, cookie crumbles, and walnuts. This filling would glue together two cookies heavy in butter and light in sugar. after the cookies cool down, they are dyed in proper colors and a mint or decorative marzipan leaf is added to the fruity look. Finally, the cookies are rolled in sugar. They always caught the attention of guests when we carried in the trays from the kitchen.
The Croatian filling was similar to the Soviet one, but instead of Sgushonka, they use peach jam. Makes sense.
The similarity between the Croatian and the Soviet versions was fascinating to me, I wanted to know more about the history and how and when did they spread across the Slavic world. But in 2019 who had time to explore the history of cookies?
The cookies from the Adriatic Meat Market were good, but they weren't the same as my mom's. I wanted the dulce de leche flavor, not jam. I added 'Peaches' to my to-do list - "one day I'll have more time to bake". That day came during the pandemic. After baking all sorts of other cookies for several months I felt ready for the peaches. When I googled a recipe, I was surprised again. It turns out that the original name of these cookies was 'Pesche Dolci', and they are Italian. Italian?!
I needed to know more and immediately contacted my Italian source Oded”.
So, we started to bake in New York and Calabria. We also started our search to understand how is it possible that almost the same pastries (more or less) appear in east and west Europe.
Most Italian sources pointed to one place: a dinner which took place in the second half of March 1861 and celebrated the unification of Italy which occurred on the 17th that month. The menu of that dinner, hosted in the Contrucci Hotel at the cathedral square of the Tuscan town Prato combined dishes from the different regions of Italy, and the dessert praised Prato itself, where around grow excellent peaches.
In time the recipe got forgotten, until Paolo Sacchetti, owner of the pastry shop “Nuovo Mondo” in Prato, around 50 meters from the place where the dinner took place, discovered it and decided to recreate it in his shop.
As always in food stories it’s a great story, but it doesn’t explain how we can find the same pastry all around the Soviet Union – and also in a hotel of a not-so-big town in Tuscany. Even Sacchetti himself, in his book which is dedicated to the pastry, writes that “we don’t have a founded information about where and when these pastries were invented, but we know they appeared in pastry-shop showcases in the second half of the 19th century, and some connect them to the events around Italy’s unification”.
Wait a second. If this is the case it’s not so clear the pastry’s origin is Tuscany. Even if we take this as a starting point, we will have to explain how is it possible that this specific pastry roamed through all the Soviet Empire, but more famous Italian dishes failed to do so.
Most of the Russian recipe websites don’t help us to solve the mystery: most of the time they describe the pastry, ingredients – and let’s start baking! The only historic comment comes in a form of nostalgic melodies on “Mother Russia” and the condensed milk used to fill the pastries.
So far, we haven’t managed to prove that the pastry went from Italy to Russia, then it’s time to check the other option – that the pastry found its way from Russia, where it was a common dish, to Prato.
During his service in the Tzar’s army, Arseny Andreyevich Zakryevsky fought Napoleon in Austerlitz, the Ottoman Empire and Sweden, and served as the head of military intelligence, minister of interior, and governor of Finland. After failing to fight the Cholera disease in the south of Russia in 1830 Zakryevsky resigned, but the national uprising of 1848 brought him back to side the Tzar and controlling Moscow with an iron fist.
Arseny Andreyevich Zakryevsky
In 1859 Zakryevsky left his formal duties, feeling disappointed from the reforms that swept Russia and abolished serfdom. Not just that, but he decided to leave everything behind and move in 1863 - from all the places in the world - to Galceti, on the outskirts of Prato, where his daughter Lidia lived with her husband, Prince Dmitry Vladimirovich Drutskoy-Sokolinsky. Now, look at the coat of arms of the Drutskoy-Sokolinsky family. Doesn’t it look like two “Peaches” pastries?!
Hey! Russia-Prato-around 1860!
This noble Russian family wasn’t out of place in this region. Since the beginning of the 19th century Florence gathered an aristocratic Russian community that owned mansions and farms, and with its nationalistic emotions left behind had a vast cultural discussion with the new emerging Italian nationalism. Buturlin and Demidoff families paved the way for more families that mixed into the Florentine sphere, mainly through wealthy – but not always happy – marriage arrangements, and Florence was a must-to-visit for famous Russian travelers.
Leo Tolstoy visited Florence for two weeks at the beginning of 1861 before continuing to Paris and London, and while there he met his great-aunt Agrafena Fedorovna Tolstoya, happening to be by chance the wife of Arseny Zakryevsky. Did the cooks of Zakryevsky-Tolstoya were ordered to make the famous pastry in honor of the writer? While staying in Florence in 1869, Dostoyevsky managed to finish his book “The Idiot”. Did he also manage to find in the pastry shops the pastries from the homeland?
Zakryevsky and Tolstoya-Zakryevskaya
Staying on the literature path, we come to read that Agrafena, Tolstoy’s great-aunt, was one of Alexander Pushkin’s muses, and Pushkin, so we read, was a great gluttonous. Among his food-related descriptions, there’s the one of another Russian writer, Vladimir Ivanovic Kolosov, in which Pushkin “sits at Galliani's window, legs tucked in, and swallows peaches. How he reminded me of a monkey!” Galliani was Pushkin’s favorite hotel in Tver where he used to travel, and its owner was Pavel Damianovich Galliani. Sounds like a Russian name, but it’s the Russian version of Paolo Galliani, “Damiano’s son”. We don’t know from which part of Italy the family Galliani came to Tver, and we don’t know whether they were actual peaches or the pastries that found their way to Italy. In any case, Pushkin died in 1837, so there’s no way that even if they were the pastries, they arrived from the same source of the dinner at the hotel in Prato.
But stories, as fascinating as they might be, are not enough, so they really should follow a recipe. Well, here is my mother-in-law’s recipe for “peaches” pastries – without peaches.
The ingredients should give 120 halves, which means 60 whole pastries, which means 45 whole pastries deducting those who might have got broken in the process, and for sure those that were eaten during it right after coming out of the oven.
No surprises regarding the dough:
1 kg of flour 00
400 grams of sugar
250 ml of milk
1 bag of vanilla extract
2 bags of yeast
180 grams of butter – and a little bit more, you’ll see what I mean. Instead of butter, we used strutto, pork fat that you can buy in the supermarket for cheap in immense jars, or produce yourself, in the right season. In any case, the ratio is the same – 1:1 butter to fat.
Some strutto - and a little bit more
Start with creating a hole in the flour and mix in the eggs. Incorporate them while adding the other ingredients in turns. No need to hurry. Almost never, by the way.
You should get a very flexible dough, on which a press leaves a mark, so be careful not to take photos of the process, if you don’t want to risk identity theft.
The recipe has two tricks:
To fill the pastries, they should look like a dome, therefore we need to create a hole in them, somehow.
One method is to bake half balls, and while they’re still hot trying to hold them and carve out their inside. This (very tasty) by-product could be used as part of the filling or in any other recipe that requires a pastry crumble.
But it’s always better to stay out of trouble, isn’t it? Instead of carving out pastries, my mother-in-law collected lots of nutshells (it’s possible also to buy metal ones, like here), so we covered them with the dough before baking to create the desired form.
We baked the pastries above the nutshells – no worries, they didn’t burn – for 15 minutes in 180 degrees and made sure that the color on the outside doesn’t get too dark.
And here’s the second trick – totally free: to separate the pastry from the nutshell easily, we covered the shell with some butter before placing the dough (is it clear now why “and a little more”?), so –
After taking the pastries out of the oven, some were required to be eaten as part of the quality assurance process, my advice is to put them in pairs by size, more or less. It will make the task of combining the two halves for a nice peach shape much easier afterward.
About the fillings.
In the recipe books, there is a long-long list of “classic” fillings, but this is the time for us to go wild and choose any filling (or two) we desire to match the two pastry halves.
We picked “neutral” crème patissiere and one with cocoa, and also here there are tons of recipes for crème patissiere. This is my mother-in-law’s, and also it is developed upon a previous one. Don’t worry about the quantities, what’s left can be eaten with any other pastry, or straight with a spoon, if you’d prefer to save the agent’s fee:
1 liter of milk
5 egg yolks
5 spoons of flour
5 spoons of sugar
Incorporate the sugar and egg yolks, add in parts the flour and milk until you get a homogenous liquid without lumps. Filter it to a pan above Bain-marie, and whisk it until it gets thicker. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you for how long, but you have to sense the mixture and feel when the magic occurs. After dividing the cream in half add 50 grams of cocoa powder to one of the halves – and leave them both to cool in the fridge for 5-6 hours.
I liked also this curd recipe and replaced lemons with mandarins, but really - the options are endless. I can think of a great cream with hazelnuts, or if you’d like to create a whole illusion you could make a peach cream like they do in eastern Europe. Or how about a “neutral” crème patissiere with small cubes of peaches or maybe a jam?
So, we baked the pastries and filled them up – now what?
As mark described, around the Soviet Empire the pastries were dipped in beetroot juice or carrot juice to create a colorful effect. My Ukrainian sources (I have some of them as well) told me that in Ukraine people used to hide a cherry between the halves, and the pastries were dipped in cherry liquor.
But in Italy, where it might be the homeland of these pastries, the final touch for the peachy look comes from dipping the pastries in a red liquor called Alkermes, which is being produced for almost 300 years in the Perfumes and Pharmaceutical Pharmacy (Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica) adjacent to the Santa Maria Novella Basilica in Florence. The word Alkermes comes from the Arabic word “Alqirmiz”, the name of an insect, which by grinding creates the color crimson, the same color that Is made to produce also British Prog-Rock bands:
Rest assures, today the color is made artificially with the color E120. Too bad.
Another piece of advice is to use a spoon to drip the liquor, or any other liquid, on the pastries, so the hands will stay dry for the next stage which is rolling them in sugar.
While baking the pastries, Wonderful V., my wonderful wife, remembered that at the end of service in the restaurant that her family owned, the younger clients at the table were served “a cocktail” made of Alchermes and looots of sugar. This was the very soft version of the real thing, a liquor that came from the northern city of Brescia, marked an unbelievable rate of 70%(!) alcohol, and was called “The Fire of Russia” (Fuoco di Russia), after the fire that Moscow’s resident set at the city before Napoleon’s army marched in it in 1812.
Again Italy, again Russia, again red color.
For the last touch, instead of using a marzipan leaf, we used a green-colored Ostia (the communion wafer), that completed the peachy look.
Here they are – “peaches” pastries without peaches!
Alas, even after putting our minds together and visiting lots of websites in (at least) three languages, Mark and I didn’t manage to get to a conclusion whether the pastries moved from west to east or vice-versa. What we did prove is that you can bake the same pastry on both sides of the ocean, and the result will be dazzling.