When dreaming of Italy, which happens far more often nowadays, I find myself trying to recreate past trips through recipe development. We all know food is a virtual transport to past times in our lives, so when I can create a dish that resembles the look, feel, and flavor of something enjoyed abroad, memories of happy adventures flood my mind. It’s almost as good as returning to my beloved homeland.
My family hails from Calabria, and I adore visiting that region. But during my last few trips to Italy, instead of staying in one location, I was fortunate enough to do a bit of domestic travel. The more I moved around within a country, the more I began to notice similarities and differences in customs, geography, and of course, local food culture.
One such unifying custom is the way in which all meals end: dessert! And more specifically, I found, desserts with just a hint of sweetness to close out the meal. Growing up with an Italian mother, I was already raised accustomed to eating desserts that weren't overpowered by sugar. (My mother actually evaluates desserts by their lack of sweetness. If it's too sweet, she will push her plate away after a bite and shake her head. If she takes a bite and smiles, it's immediately followed up with: "This is good, not too sweet.") So a few years back, while traveling through Southern Italy, I was perusing menus online (one of my favorite pastimes) and a particular dish caught my eye on many of them: “baked fruit of the day.” I was intrigued by the humble-sounding dish; it seemed like it would suit me well.
What I came to discover was that each morning, the restaurant's chef would decide which fruit would be plucked from the restaurant garden (yes, many establishments in Italy have access to their own little backyard gardens—divine, right?). Once picked, the fresh fruit (typically of the stone variety), was cut in half, pitted, and baked to soft, jammy perfection. A little liqueur and a crunchy topping finished this simple yet elegant dish.
After finally experiencing the dish at a restaurant—eyes rolling back, complete taste bud delight achieved—I asked the chef for the recipe. With a wave of his hand, he explained it really wasn't a recipe at all; more of a little of this and a little of that, based on the day's offerings. He listed off the ingredients and a few instructions in swift Italian, and luckily, I was listening carefully enough to memorize the formula. Ever since, I've been able to recreate the famed bake fruit at home, and am glad to be paying it forward so you can too. Follow these steps for a simple, elegant, and truly delicious fruit dessert. In my opinion, it's the only one worth turning on the oven for in the summertime.
1. Choose your fruit
With a 350°F oven ready to go, I butter a cast-iron baking dish and place it in the oven to heat the butter. Then, I cut up my chosen fruit—let's say, some ripe peaches I grabbed at the market, but plums, apples, and pears would work great, too—and cut them in half, pulling the pit from the middle.
2. Prep Your Pan
Once the fruit is pitted and ready to go, I carefully remove the hot baking dish from the oven and sprinkle a bit of sugar into the dish. The peach halves go in, cut-side up, and are ready for a simple but flavorful filling. I love a mixture of rum-soaked raisins or even some candied lemon as they do in Genoa, but you can also try other dried fruits like apricots like I found in Lazio or even some dried cherries; the options are limitless. A dab of butter on each and half a cup of rum or sweet white wine goes into the pan, and the dish is ready for the oven. You could easily sub with sweet Marsala or even some bourbon!
In under 30 minutes, the fruit will be soft, and the topping will have melted into the perfectly cooked center. A crumble of nuts or crushed amaretti cookies (my favorite) on top, and Italian dessert perfection has been achieved. Add some whipped cream or your favorite gelato to gild the lily, and you too might just never bake a summer cake again!