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Off the fork: Phosphate leavener key to heavenly cobbler

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Without baking powder, there would be no peach cobbler. Not a world I want to live in.
Without baking powder, there would be no peach cobbler. Not a world I want to live in.

In 1856 Eben Norton Horsford, the lord of Sylvester Manor, patented the first leavening to include calcium phosphate, and subsequently made a fortune marketing Rumford Baking Powder, a combination of chemicals that did for baking what the washing machine did for laundering.

The pancakes, cookies, cobblers and biscuits that came in the wake of this invention are either delightful treats, or sugar and chemical-laced threats to public health, depending on your view of food history.

A new book by Linda Civitello about the history of baking powder, “Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking,” describes this fascinating history. The author will describe the book at a special talk in the Shelter Island Library’s Friday Night Dialogues series that will be held at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on August 25th at 7 p.m.

If you need convincing that chemical leaveners have been a force for good, try this recipe for peach cobbler, one of the singularly American dishes made possible by baking powder, and especially popular during that part of the summer when the peaches are so tasty that you eat them outdoors so the juice won’t drip down your chin and onto the floor.

You can get fresh local peaches from Goodale Farms or Wesnofske’s at the Shelter Island Historical Society’s farmers market, and Kilbs farm stand on Route 114.

This cobbler recipe, which appears in Civitello’s book, is from Adrian Lipscombe, a gifted baker who relocated from Texas to Wisconsin, opened a café and bakery, and started showing off what a golden, crusty baking powder drop biscuit can do for fresh peaches.

And if you need a fresh can of baking powder, you can always pick up a can of Rumford, Eben Horsford’s brand, and put locally-invented baking powder on your local peaches.

Adrian Lipscombe’s Peach Cobbler
Uptowne Café, LaCrosse, Wisconsin from Baking Powder Wars  |  Serves 12

1 and ½ tablespoons cornstarch
¼-1/3 cup brown sugar depending on how sweet the peaches are
½ cup water
4 cups fresh peaches, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon cinnamon

3 cups flour, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup vegetable shortening or butter
1 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F (220 C)

To make the filling
1.    In a large saucepan, mix cornstarch and brown sugar with water.  Add peaches and cook until mixture is thickened, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2.    Stir in butter, lemon juice, and cinnamon.
3.    Pour into an 8-inch round baking dish.
To make the topping
1.    Mix sifted flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.
2.    Cut in shortening until mixture looks like coarse meal.
3.    Add milk and stir just enough to hold dough together.
4.    Drop the batter topping by spoonfuls onto the peach mixture, and spread evenly.
5.    Bake until topping golden, about 30 minutes. Serve warm.