Think of pêche Melba as France’s version of peaches and cream—but with that little extra je ne sais quoi.
The French bistro classic is a cup-held dessert of syrup-poached peaches served atop vanilla ice cream, all doused with a sweet-tart raspberry coulis. It’s a breeze to recreate at home, and is naturally best made at the height of summer, when peaches are at their sweetest, juiciest peak.
Made to Serve a Star
Pêche Melba was invented by the renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1892.
Escoffier created the dessert for a dinner in honor of Australian soprano Nellie Melba, who was a regular at Escoffier’s table. As the story goes, one night, when she was in town to sing Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin at Covent Garden, Nellie Melba invited the chef to come see her performance. The production featured a boat in the shape of a majestic swan, which inspired Escoffier for the creation of his soon-to-become iconic dessert.
Back in his kitchen the next day, Escoffier unveiled his creation with an elaborate presentation: a large silver dessert cup (known as a timbale) of fresh peaches on a bed of vanilla ice cream, topped with spun sugar, carried between the wings of an ice-sculpted swan. He called the dessert “pêche au cygne,” a play on words meaning both “swan fishing” and “peach with a swan.”
Later in the early 1900s, when Escoffier became head chef of the Ritz Carlton in London, he added a simplified version of the dessert to his menu. He decided to skip the ice swan, obviously for convenience, and added a topping of sweetened raspberry coulis instead. He renamed the dish pêche Melba, or peach Melba, as it is best known in English.
Rumor has it Melba toast was also named after the famed singer—but that’s another story.
A Simple but Sophisticated Trio
Pêche Melba is a great example of how simple ingredients, cleverly paired together, can result in a sophisticated dessert—both in appearance and in taste. The flavors of the sweet-tart peaches, raspberry coulis, and smooth vanilla ice cream are perfectly matched.
Using fresh seasonal peaches is key here. In comparison, canned peaches are almost always too sweet.
According to Escoffier, a proper pêche Melba requires using “tender and very ripe peaches,” making summer the best time to make it. Yellow-fleshed peach varieties are best, as they are both sweet and tart, with an acidity that contrasts nicely against the vanilla ice cream. White-fleshed peaches, although smoother in flavor, tend to lack that needed acidity.
When shopping for ripe peaches, look for ones that are evenly colored yellow (the red blushes do not necessarily indicate ripeness), with no green around the stem and a well-defined crease in the middle. When handling them, they should have a bit of give but shouldn’t feel mushy. Lastly, don’t hesitate to give them a sniff— they should smell as good as you hope they will taste.
After sourcing the perfect peaches, you’ll blanch them quickly, which will help you slip off the skins without damaging the delicate flesh, and then poach them in a sweet syrup. These few extra steps will make a big difference in the final product.
Firm-ripe nectarines, although lighter in flavor, are a good option as well. But know that they tend to hold onto their skin more tightly than peaches, so you may need more patience to peel them.
The Raspberry Coulis
Although it’s called pêche Melba, the dessert wouldn’t be complete without the bright red raspberry coulis.
Unlike the peaches, I think that either fresh or frozen raspberries are acceptable here, since they are meant to be reduced to a puree. If using frozen raspberries, make sure you thaw and drain them well beforehand.
Passing the puree through a fine mesh strainer, although optional, will filter out the tiny raspberry seeds and make the final product smoother.
Finally, a couple of spoonfuls of powdered sugar, which easily dissolves, will turn the puree into a sweet sauce.
The Vanilla Ice Cream
For convenience, a tub of store-bought vanilla ice cream is perfectly acceptable. However, if you have the time and equipment to make homemade ice cream, by all means, please do. Plain frozen yogurt, although not traditional, works great, too.
In any case, make sure you opt for a creamy frozen companion that isn’t too sweet, so it doesn’t overwhelm the fruity taste of the peaches and raspberry.
Regarding optional add-ons, it should be noted that chef Escoffier declared that “any variation on the recipe ruins the delicate balance of its taste.” However, I think that a small sprinkling of shaved almonds provides a pleasing crunch, while a fresh basil leaf adds a final touch of freshness. Any more, though, would be de trop—too much.
Pêche Melba is a great dessert for effortless summertime hosting. The poached peaches and raspberry coulis can be both made ahead of time and stored in the fridge, with the final assembly done just before serving.
Per chef Escoffier’s original instructions, pêche Melba is to be served in silver timbales, but stemmed glass cups or classic bowls are perfectly acceptable, in my opinion.
Make sure to keep the leftover syrup from the poached peaches. You can use it to sweeten your favorite refreshing summer drinks or cocktails, such as iced tea or Bellinis.
- 4 ripe peaches
For the Poaching Syrup
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 3 cups water
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract)
For the Raspberry Coulis
- 1 cup raspberries (fresh or frozen, well-drained)
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 large tub vanilla ice cream
- Optional: 1/4 cup slivered almonds, for garnish
- Optional: 4 fresh basil leaves, for garnish
Peel the Peaches
Bring a heavy pot of water to a boil and prepare a bowl of ice water. Cut a small “X” into the bottom of each peach with a sharp knife. Immerse the peaches in the boiling water for 30 seconds, then immediately use a slotted spoon to transfer the peaches to the ice bath to stop the cooking.
Transfer peaches to a cutting board and gently pull off the skins, starting from the “X” you cut. If the skin doesn’t come off easily, use a knife to help. Once peeled, cut the peaches in halves or quarters, discarding the pits. Set aside.
Poach the Peaches
Combine the sugar and water in a shallow frying pan or large saucepan. Halve the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the pan (or add the vanilla extract). Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the peaches, then bring the syrup to a slight simmer and reduce the heat. Cover and let simmer for 5–6 minutes, occasionally basting the peaches with the syrup with a spoon. Turn the peaches over and continue to poach until very tender, so that they can be easily pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, about 5–6 minutes more.
Turn off the heat and let the peaches cool in their poaching liquid in the pan, uncovered, for 1 hour.
Make the Raspberry Coulis
While the peaches are cooling, puree the raspberries in a blender. Optional: pass the raspberry purée through a fine mesh strainer to discard the small seeds. Transfer the puree to a bowl.
Immediately stir in the powdered sugar and lemon juice into the raspberry purée and whisk vigorously to make sure no lumps were formed.
Distribute the peaches evenly into four individual serving bowls. Top with one or two scoops of vanilla ice cream and drizzle with raspberry coulis.
Optional: Sprinkle each bowl with a few slivered almonds and garnish with a fresh basil leaf.
Audrey Le Goff is a French food writer, photographer, and creator of the food blog, “Pardon Your French,” where she shares recipes and stories from her beloved home country, France. She is the author of the cookbook “Rustic French Cooking Made Easy” (2019). She currently lives in Niagara, Canada. Follow her on Instagram @pardonyourfrench