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Niagara County Peach Festival: It starts with the shortcake

We adored Roald Dahl’s, “James and the Giant Peach.” Some of our fondest memories are passages of James and his bug buddies eating the fleshy, juicy peach.

We're fortunate to have access to luscious homegrown peaches in our area, and this season's crop is fantastic from what we've already gorged on.

The second best thing to eating a dripping peach over the sink is eating that peach in a shortcake. And with the Niagara County Peach Festival in Lewiston, we thought we should investigate the item crucial to its construction: the shortcake.

We did a little digging and discovered the DiCamillo Bakery is the official baker of the shortcake for the festival, which runs Sept. 6-9.

Matthew DiCamillo, vice president, said the bakery’s records show DiCamillo’s has been making the shortcake for about 40 years. (This year is the 61st annual festival. We imagine some old ladies protested at some point that it was too much to handle after 20 years, and who wants to bake throughout August anyway?)

DiCamillo said it probably happened that way too, and the fact the festival wanted a consistent and authentic shortcake.

For aficionados, the shortcake is crucial. Some folks use pound cake, others actual biscuits. We are in the biscuit camp. So what did DiCamillo’s come up with?

“It’s definitely something between an American Southern breakfast biscuit and a pound cake. It is really a Scottish/Irish scone type tea biscuit. The formula we use was given to us by an employee who was a Scottish immigrant. It is only slightly sweet and leavened with baking powder and egg.  It is delicious on its own but even better topped with butter and preserves or creamed honey,” he said (as our mouths water).

“It has qualities of both. Pound cakes have a high percentage of sugar, fat, and egg relative to flour and tend to have flavoring agents in like vanilla and lemon. Biscuits are usually very low in sugar, contain no eggs, and use very cold butter added in stages.

"Our tea biscuits are similar to a cake in that they do contain eggs, but also similar to a biscuit in that the shortening is kept very cold and mixed in stages creating the same layered texture you find in a biscuit. Ours are cut on a round dye, always by hand.”

DiCamillo's Bakery supplies tea biscuits for the Niagara County Peach Festival. They are a cross between a Southern biscuit and pound cake. but throw a little Scottish/Irish scone in there too. (Photo DiCamillo Bakery)

DiCamillo tea cakes have been around before the festival starting using them, too.

“We began making this product back in 1950s, when we had our pastry bakery location on Third Street in Niagara Falls,” he said. While he doesn’t have an exact count, he estimates the festival uses several thousands each year.

“A good biscuit is essential because it helps provide some balance to the sweetness of the peach and mouth-feel of the cream. Peaches and cream alone are delicious. The peach is the star, but once that peach juice and cream soak into the biscuit, the taste is just super satisfying! You want a biscuit that can hold up to a juicy peach without breaking apart, while still tender and just sweet enough to fit as a dessert.”

Oh yes, DiCamillo gets it.

DiCamillo says the bakery tries to bring a lot of important styles into play that customers like in a tea cake. He says they, "toast up beautifully too."

“We sell these tea biscuits all year, and they are always available at our retail stores. It’s definitely a product that people are fiercely loyal to,” he said.

And what about the age old question: strawberry shortcake versus peach?

“Who doesn’t love peach shortcake? While strawberry shortcake might be more well-known across the country, here in Western New York we get some phenomenal peaches. I don’t think there is a better late summer dessert than peach shortcake.”

Niagara County Peach Festival

The festival runs 5 to 10 p.m. Sept. 6, 5 to 11 p.m. Sept. 7 and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sept. 8 and 9 in Academy Park in Lewiston. Visit lewistonpeachfestival.org for details.

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