A Real Georgia Peach

Using her kitchen as a laboratory, a Decatur pastry chef rethinks the possibilities of the state’s favorite fruit

In the dining room of Decatur’s Cakes & Ale restaurant, light is streaming through the windows. It’s morning on a day that the restaurant is closed but, still, the kitchen is active. The restaurant’s pastry chef, Cynthia Wong, sometimes uses a day off to test recipes and today, it’s peaches—fresh, local peaches.

Georgia peaches, in a childhood memory, were available all summer long and then some but, admittedly, summers seemed longer back then. In Atlanta, it felt as if there was a farm stand on every other corner, marked by produce trucks tipping with peach-filled wooden baskets. The fuzzy texture, intoxicating smell and sweet taste seemed more intense than they do today. More than a romantic, exaggerated memory, they really were more available—and more intense. Because small, local farms have been struggling, peaches and other produce are often picked before they are ripe and then held in refrigeration while being shipped all over the country, resulting in fewer great peaches and fewer farm stands. Searching for the cheapest peach, rather than spending a little more on Georgia fruit from a farm stand or grocer who understands local food systems, has threatened not only our local economy but the taste of the fruit, too. To get the true, ripe flavor back into our food; chefs like Wong are leading the charge.

All over the South there are still family farms growing varieties of peaches with names like June Gold, Dixie Red, Topaz, Elberta, Sunbrite, Springcrest, Ruby Prince and White Lady. Happily, some farmers ship their ripe fruit as soon as it’s picked and some still have on-farm stands. Just two hours south of Atlanta—in Ft. Valley, Georgia—Al and Mary Pearson of Pearson Family Farms continue to grow peaches in the summer (and pecans in the fall) on the same land that Al’s family has farmed since 1890.

Work on the peach trees starts in January. The Pearsons typically spend two months pruning; thinning the peaches takes up April and May while harvest covers June and July.  Al and Mary, who employ 200 people during harvest, are proud of their farm and their efforts to grow the best peaches possible. But Al, who grew up in the family business, knows the challenges of farming well. “Our money literally does grow on trees,” he says, explaining that many things can stunt the trees’ growth, from weeds and insects to wild hogs and deer. “And with the constant threat of hail, freeze, tornadoes and drought, it always seems a miracle that a crop is ever harvested.

“Successful farming today requires a blend of art, talent, hard work and faith. It is a real challenge to grow and deliver to the market the ‘Queen of Fruits’—a Georgia peach—but the rewards of doing that job well make the effort worthwhile.”

Back at Cakes and Ale, Wong—with a bushel of peaches, sugar, flour and a restaurant kitchen all to herself—heats up the ovens. Drawing on memories of peach pie, she takes what she knows about producing the perfect crust and fashions mini-pies into tins that have turned black with use. She plays with the patterns of the top crusts—a cross-hatch here, a lattice there, even a solid version with just enough slits to allow the steam to escape. Atop the pastry, a sprinkling of granulated sugar looks like crystals and, as a fork is pushed through the little pie, a burst of peach-scented steam escapes. It’s perfect.

Homemade peach ice cream is another summertime standard that the chef refuses to make too “fancy pants.” With a nod to peaches and cream, she blends just enough sugar to sweeten without covering up the flavor of the fruit. The result is a well-balanced, old-fashioned ice cream that will find its place on top of a brown butter tartlet or, better yet, in a bowl all by itself.

Chef Wong has been cooking for 20 years,  pulling stints as a pasta maker for Via Elisa and a food stylist/recipe tester for Alton Brown before beginning to develop her own recipes. She made a big noise with her “Phatty Cakes,” rich ginger cookie sandwiches filled with mascarpone cream that she’d started to sell in specialty markets. But when Chef Billy Allen and his wife Kristen (the owners of Cakes & Ale) recruited Wong to be their pastry chef, they got the Phatty Cakes with the deal.

On this designated recipe-testing day, the chef’s husband—John David Harmon, a specialty foods buyer for Whole Foods Market and a fine cook himself—shows up with an experiment of his own that he cooked up at home and brought in for lunch. Pulled, smoked chicken and a simple slaw made of cabbage and Vidalia onions mixed with “Alabama white sauce” gets piled on top of bread, creating a riff on a pulled barbecue sandwich. In a stroke of genius, Wong pulls out a jar of pickled peaches and piles some on top. The combination is, not surprisingly, delicious.

Taking advantage of having the restaurant all to themselves, the couple turns an impromptu working lunch into something of a date. Harmon serves his wife and they compliment each other on their recipes, ending the meal with a bite of perfect peach pie and a scoop of peach ice cream.