ALL A great fresh berry needs is a little bit of flattery, and an uncomplicated preparation. Here are a score or so simple things you can do to strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Cleaning Fresh Berries
Berries only suffer from being washed. Although moist and juicy, most berries will behave like mushrooms in that they absorb whatever liquid is poured over them, and all but blueberries become soft and watery tasting given the slightest excuse.
To clean berries properly, spread them out and pick over them to remove any bits of stem or leaves that may be clinging to the surface. Any washing necessary should be as brief as possible and done just before serving. Blueberries are the exception; they can be rinsed under running cold water, then refrigerated until serving time.
Fresh Berries Rinsed in Liqueur
Pouring liqueur or liquor over berries and allowing them to macerate tends to make the berries mushy and leaves an unnecessary alcohol sting in the throat. Instead of letting the berries soak, just rinse them gently. Sprinkle a small amount of liquor or liqueur onto the berries and toss so that each berry is lightly moistened with the liqueur. Immediately drain and serve.
For strawberries, use: cognac, armagnac, dark rum, orange liqueur, anisette or framboise.
For raspberries, use: framboise, eau de vie de mirabelle, or orange liqueur.
For blackberries, use: orange liqueur, anisette, apricot brandy or liqueur, or eau de vie de poire.
For blueberries, use: anisette, orange liqueur or dark rum.
Serve with Unwhipped Cream
It's more cooling and refreshing than whipped. But whether your inclination is for whipped or unwhipped cream, spend a little time searching through specialty markets to find heavy or whipping cream that is not ultra- or super-pasteurized (sometimes available at High's). This process, which was developed to extend the shelf-life of the cream, involves heating the cream to a very high temperature to kill the bacteria. Unfortunately, it leaves a cooked, flat taste in the cream, in addition to making it difficult to whip.
Serve with Devon Clotted Cream
When the great cream from the Isle of Jersey is gently heated in the Southern English shire of Devon, the butterfat clots, leaving delicious globs of richness strewn through the cream. Devon clotted cream is difficult to make at home, especially from the already-processed cream available on the American market, but it can be purchased in small containers at many of the specialty food shops in the area (Magruders, Neam's and Larimer's sell eight ounces for about $3.50).
Serve with Sour Cream
Serve dollops of plain sour cream if your guests do not have a particularly sweet tooth. Alternatively, sweeten the sour cream with a little superfine granulated sugar or brown sugar before serving.
Serve with Cre me Fraiche
Cre me fraiche translates as "fresh cream," but it really isn't, at least not in the normal sense of the phrase. Cre me fraiche is slightly sour in taste, has a very high butterfat content, and is at least as thick as sour cream, though the bacteria which the French allow to thicken it are not as sour as commercial sour cream in this country. There are two types of cre me frai che available in the markets: one is American, made in the French style but very thick; the other is an imported French product which is thinner and sometimes runny. Both are excellent and expensive (Domestic: 10 ounces about $3.75; imported Foy is eight ounces for about $3).
You can also make a kind of cre me frai che at home. While the homemade version is certainly good, the cream available for making it is lower in fat content than would be found in the commercial products, and so to some palates not quite so interesting.
This is how to make it at home:
CREME FRAICHE (Makes about 2 1/2 cups) 1/3 cup buttermilk 2 cups whipping cream
In a blender or food processor, combine the buttermilk with the cream, and blend or process until thoroughly mixed. Transfer to a tightly covered jar and leave at room temperature for eight to 12 hours, until thick. Store in the refrigerator.
Serve with Whipped Cream
There are two kinds of whipped cream--stiffly whipped cream that is the most common type, and runny whipped cream. Both may be flavored and/or sweetened.
To prepare stiffly whipped cream, first chill a bowl and the beaters. Beat the cream, beginning at a slow speed and gradually increasing to high, until the cream holds a stiff peak when the beater is lifted. At this point the cream may be flavored with a little sugar, and pure vanilla extract or a liqueur of your choice. (Use one of the liqueurs recommended above for rinsing berries.) Be careful not to overbeat after the flavorings have been added.
Prepare runny whipped cream in the same way, only stop the beating when the cream has thickened nicely and forms a quickly disappearing ribbon behind the beaters. It should thickly coat the berries. Flavor or sweeten in the same way as for stiffly whipped cream.
Serve with Cre me Chantilly
This classic sweetened whipped cream sauce from France is light in texture while having more body than traditional American whipped cream.
CREME CHANTILLY (Makes about 2 cups 1 cup whipping cream 3 tablespoons superfine sugar 2 teaspoons vanilla 1 egg white
To prepare cre me chantilly, beat the whipping cream with 1 tablespoon sugar and the vanilla until just stiff. In a separate bowl, combine the egg white with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and beat until a smooth, glossy meringue forms and a soft peak forms on the end of the beaters when they are lifted out of the meringue. Fold the meringue into the whipped cream. Instead of the vanilla, this sauce can be flavored with a liqueur appropriate to the berry (see those recommended for rinsing berries above). Other Sauce Possibilities
Other sauces from the classic repertoires are sabayon or zabaglione (the French and Italian names, respectively, for the same sauce)--a slightly temperamental sauce that needs to be made at the last minute--and cre me anglaise--a sweetened egg yolk-thickened sauce, served cold. Yogurt--sometimes sweetened with honey, sometimes not--has become an increasingly popular topping for fresh berries.
SABAYON (Makes about 2 cups) 8 egg yolks 1/3 cup sugar 2/3 cup marsala (or other liquor or liqueur)
Combine all the ingredients in the top of a double boiler. Set over boiling water and whisk vigorously until sauce is well inflated and thick, and the first signs of steam rise from the surface. Serve immediately.
CREME ANGLAISE (Makes about 2 1/2 cups) 8 egg yolks 2/3 cup sugar 1 1/2 cups whipping cream 2 teaspoons vanilla
Combine all the ingredients in the top of a double boiler and mix well. Set over boiling water and stir constantly, being careful to scrape the bottom of the pan, until the sauce becomes thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Immediately pour into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until serving time.
Fresh Berries with Two or Three Kinds of Creams
This is the most elegant way to serve fresh berries. Arrange the cleaned and picked-over berries (see directions above) in a large glass or crystal bowl. Pass, in separate bowls, two or three of the creams described above. For an even more lavish spread, serve huge bowls of two or three different fresh berries with six creams--plain heavy cream, runny whipped cream, stiffly whipped cream (perhaps these last two with different flavorings), sour cream, cre me frai che and clotted cream.
Fresh Berries with Confectioners' Sugar
For berries that are not quite as sweet and ripe as they might be, an attractive way to serve them is to arrange the berries neatly on a plate garnished with a molded mound of powdered sugar. Pack some confectioners' sugar into a small mold (an egg cup is about the right size). Invert a plate over the mold, then invert the two, holding them tightly together, and rap gently on a counter so that the sugar settles down onto the plate in the shape of the mold. Arrange the berries around the sugar and serve. This is particularly good with strawberries and blackberries. Blueberries and raspberries can be a bit difficult to eat when served this way.
When very large California strawberries are in the markets, they are usually less flavorful than the smaller berries and so yearn for an addition flavor to make them more exciting. There are two ways to fill them with chocolate:
1. Melt some white chocolate or some semi-sweet chocolate in the top of a double boiler placed over boiling water until the chocolate is easily pourable, but not too hot. Carefully dribble some of the chocolate into the centers of large strawberries which have been hollowed out. Arrange in a pan or on a cake rack so that the berries are standing stem end up. Place in a cool spot and allow the chocolate to harden, or refrigerate until serving time.
2. If you are willing to let convenience drive you to extravagance, you can buy chocolate sauce in a squeeze tube from Kron Chocolatier in Mazza Gallerie ($10 for 10 ounces). Hollow out some strawberries, squeeze the sauce into the center, and serve. This tube method of filling the berries is neat, clean, and great for picnics where you just pass the berries and the tube and let everyone make his own.
Fraises au Poivre
This recipe idea comes from the French region of Armagnac. Rinse the strawberries in armagnac or a fine cognac flavored with a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Allow to macerate for about 2 or 3 minutes, then sprinkle generously with coarse, freshly ground black pepper.
Berries with Lichee Nuts and Preserved Ginger
Combine two parts fresh berries (strawberries, raspberries or blackberries) with one part canned and drained lichee nuts and sprinkle liberally with finely chopped preserved ginger. Serve with plain heavy or whipping cream. The ginger may be omitted, if desired.
Berries with Bananas and Pineapple
Combine berries-- either blackberries, strawberries, blueberries or raspberries--with sliced bananas and chunks of fresh pineapple, in equal amounts. Rinse briefly with an appropriately flavored liquor or liqueur (see list above) and serve. This medley is particularly good with a cre me anglaise, and can be attractively served by placing the fruits in hollowed-out pineapple shells, passing the sauce separately.
Limbert's Blackberries and Pears
This combination of fruits was created for an Englishman who only drank eau de vie de poire. While it originated as an excuse to consume the pear eau de vie, the dessert became a wonderful way to use blackberries--another English favorite. There are two ways of serving this dessert:
1. Combine equal amounts of fresh blackberries and berry-size chunks of ripe, peeled and cored pears, the pear pieces having been sprinkled with a little freshly squeezed lemon juice first to prevent discoloration. Rinse the berries and pears (see recipe above for directions) in eau de vie de poire. Serve plain or with cre me anglaise.
2. Prepare the blackberries and pears as directed above. Arrange a piece of genoise on a plate, top with the rinsed berry and pear mixture and place a shot glass of eau de vie de poire on the plate (it can either be poured over the fruits or drunk, as each guest wishes). Serve with cre me anglaise, passed separately.
Lemon Sherbet with Kiwis and Berries
Place a scoopful of lemon sherbet in the center of a large plate. Surround the sherbet with a ring of neatly arranged sliced strawberries, or with raspberries or blackberries standing on their stem end. Make a final outer ring of sliced kiwi berries encircling the berries and sherbet. This is as beautiful to look at as it is a delight to eat. No sauce is necessary.
Fresh berry fools are very popular in England, and although they appeared in most of the important American cookbooks of the 19th century, by the early part of this century they unfortunately seemed to fall out of favor.
A fool is a slightly runny kind of uncooked pudding that only takes a few minutes to prepare and is wonderful with homemade cookies.
BERRY FOOL (4 servings) 1 1/2 pints fresh berries 1/2 cup sour cream 1/2 cup whipping cream 2 tablespoons sugar
To prepare a fool, pure'e 1 pint of the fresh berries with a little sugar in a blender or food processor. Pour into a bowl and stir together with the sour cream. Next, fold in whipping cream which has been beaten until stiff with the sugar, and the remaining 1/2 pint of fresh berries (if using strawberries, cut into quarters before folding into the fool). Refrigerate for at least 3 hours; overnight is fine. Fools should be served cold.
A crisp, preferably homemade cookie is a good accompaniment to fresh berries. For the purist, a simple butter cookie will do. But tuiles, the tile-shaped almond cookies of Provence, or florentines, the lacy chocolate dipped cookie from Italy, or palmiers, the buttered, flaky cookies made from puff pastry scraps, or sesame seed cookies, or hazelnut-flavored cookies are equally splendid.
Food Baskets for Serving Fresh Berries
Edible containers can add a little elegance to serving simple fresh berries. Three possibilities are meringue shells or vacharins, which can be purchased at many bakeries; chocolate cups or shells, which can be found in some specialty shops; and cookie shells, which can be made at home by rolling a basic butter cookie dough very thin and baking it in either muffin or cupcake pans, or brioche tins.