Marcella Hazan’s peach tart is an easy, adaptable dessert you’ll want to make again and again.
Back in the days when you could walk into your favourite used bookstore and ask the clerk for recommendations without the anxiety-inducing separation of several feet of air and a panel of plastic, I was on the hunt for a simple Italian cookbook. I wanted uncomplicated ingredients and lots of pasta recipes – it was the honeymoon period for me and my pasta roller, and I was feeling culinarily unstoppable.
“Do you think this one will be any good?” I asked, holding out Marcella Says…, a new-condition photoless tome with a pea-green cover from 2004.
“It’s Marcella!” he said, bursting with the earnest enthusiasm of one who might have known her personally. At the time, I didn’t know Marcella beyond her classic three-ingredient tomato sauce. I didn’t know she was considered Italy’s answer to Julia Child or had seven cookbooks to her (I gathered then) mononymous name.
But since buying the book, I have come to know and love Marcella with the same intimacy as the bookseller. Marcella Says isn’t merely a collection of recipes, it’s a lovingly rendered autobiography told through snapshots of her life. In tender detail, she recounts the wedding present of a coral-red lobster from the Adriatic sea that her husband Victor turned into baked lobster with mustard and oregano when they were both penniless newlyweds and the crostino topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano and olive oil that Victor enjoyed as a schoolboy in Bologna (“Your fingers will get sticky handling this. Italian children lick theirs clean,” she adds at the end of the recipe, alongside a photo of the magnificently goeteed Victor in his middle-aged prime).
After I bought the book, I declared the following season ‘the summer of crostini’. I bought good dried cannellini beans, good olive oil, and boule after boule of good bread, dreaming of heaping slices of crusty white bread shared with friends over afternoon aperitifs – which actually occurred about a handful of times.
These days, I don’t have access to Adriatic lobster or cannellini beans from Sorana (the “sweetly nutty beans of extraordinary creaminess with skins so thin as to be imperceptible”), or the “glossy-skinned, tender-fleshed, sweet-tasting” avocados from Florida, where Marcella and Victor spent their golden years. For much of March and into April, I feared I wouldn’t even have toilet paper, or yeast.
Instead, it has been ‘the summer of the peach or nectarine tart’. Marcella’s version is made with prized peaches from her hometown of Cesenatico. She writes, “As children, we used to sneak into the orchards and eat the super-ripe ones that had fallen to the ground, dribbling juice over our clothes.” Fortunately, we are also blessed with peaches, even this year. Explosively sweet and juicy, these stone fruits are the pride of the province.
Marcella’s peach tart is not actually a tart. It prominently features the unadorned ripe fruit, encased in a simple butter and sugar batter, making it feel more like a coffee cake with the soul of a tart. You fill a square or circular cake pan with a generous layer of cake batter, cover it with the sliced fruit, and top it with more batter. The base is toothsome and satisfyingly dense, while the top is crispy. It freezes well, and toasts up beautifully.
While this recipe brilliantly showcases the peaches of high summer, it is also endlessly adaptable: I’ve subbed in sliced pears stirred with a knob of grated ginger, with dashes of almond extract and slivered almonds in the batter, and as a late summer treat, blueberries and with lemon zest. The result is consistently delicious.
There’s unfailingly a point every time I make this recipe when I think, “Is two pounds of fruit too much fruit?” Reader, it is not, because, remember, this is a tart in cake’s clothing. Even if the remaining batter isn’t able to cover all of the fruit on top, the base batter will rise to form a lofty pillow and the fruit will soften and bubble into the sponge. You’ll never have to worry about soggy bottoms or meticulously arranging sliced peaches into neat concentric circles. All you have to do is remember to grease the pan properly.
There are not many golden memories to be made this summer, just a lot of stiff arm waves over glowing monitors as friends meet for Zoom trivia or a weekly movie groupwatch. But Marcella supplies the atmosphere anyway, even for the uninspiring moments. The taste of this fruit tart-that’s-not-actually-a-tart will forever bring me back to the pandemic summer and its small, sweet, and juicy luxuries.
serves 8 to 10
- 4 large peaches or nectarines, firm and not too ripe, about 2 pounds (but not over 2 ½)
- 3 extra-large eggs
- 1 heaping cup sugar
- 8 Tbsp (1 stick) butter, softened at room temperature, plus additional for greasing the baking pan
- 1 ⅓ cups unbleached all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting the baking pan
- 3 ½ tsp baking powder
- A pinch of fine sea salt
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- Wash, peel, and pit the fruit. Cut them into thin slices no more than ¼ inch thick (but I’ve found rough wedges work fine)
- Whisk or process in a food processor the eggs and sugar until they become a pale golden color and transfer to a large bowl.
- Add the butter and mix until fully incorporated.
- In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet base, and mix until the batter is smooth.
- For maximum presentation points, Marcella recommends you smear the bottom and sides of the pan with butter, dust the pan with flour and then turn the pan over and tap out the excess flour, though I’ve found that simply greasing the pan is fine for carving out squares.
- Pour two-thirds of the batter into the pan, and use a silicone spatula to level out the batter. Cover the batter with the fruit.
- Level the fruit and top it with the rest of the batter, covering the fruit as best as you can. Bake for one 1 hour. Let cool for about 15 minutes before removing from the pan.