The first strawberries, fully ripened and invitingly sweet-smelling, are arriving, signaling the beginning of the spring-and-summer, fresh fruit-and-berry season.
Whether you plan a field trip to a local farm to pick quarts and quarts of strawberries, or just buy the berries brimming from pint boxes at the market or farm stand, the strawberries should be chosen with a judicious eye.
Good berries are an even bright red color all over; green tips signify immature fruit. Choose berries that are shiny and free of bruised spots or little patches of mold.
Big, fat berries are not necessarily better -- oftentimes the smaller berries are sweeter and juicier than their larger relatives, and overgrown strawberries frequently taste like cardboard.
A hint for buying berries in plastic containers or berry boxes: evidence of spoiled berries can be detected by carefully tipping the container to one side and looking at the bottom. Wet spots will almost always mean that berries well past their prime are sitting on the bottom layer. In that case, ask to assemble your own carton of berries.
Raw strawberries can make up some of the best fruit compotes; for compotes and general eating (either out of hand or with big spoonfuls of whipped cream), rinse the berries and detach the hull only after patting them dry. Removing the pretty green leaf and stem before rinsing results in waterlogged fruit, which is unappetizing.
The Compote of Strawberries in Orange Syrup is a simple recipe for heightening the fruity taste of the berries, and the syrup is delicious when used with melon chunks, slices of nectarine, or to fold through a mixed fruit salad. The syrup is composed of the usual sugar and water, but both orange and lemon peel are added to point up the sweet essence of the berries. After these ingredients have simmered together, a dose of orange-flavored liqueur is blended in; the syrup is then reboiled to dispel any alcohol present in the liqueur and to concentrate the flavor. The syrup may be made well in advance, but poured over the fruit about an hour before serving.
One of the most delicious ways to assemble a lot of strawberries in one dessert is to make a pie. You will enjoy having the recipe for Strawberry Pie if you got carried away and either picked too many berries or bought more than you needed at the farm market because the fruit looked so good. The pie uses the berries in two ways: A small portion is cooked with sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice to form a thickened mixture that, when cooled, is folded through whole berries, then piled into the cooled pie shell.
Cream Waffles with Lemon-Strawberry Sauce are a special treat when served on Sunday morning. The waffle batter is light and creamy; egg whites are beaten until stiff with sugar to form a sort of meringue before they are incorporated in the batter, making for a crisp, yet tender waffle. Any kind of waffle iron may be used, but irons with surfaces that are treated with an instant-release substance (such as Teflon or Silverstone) are the easiest to use and do not require greasing.
The Strawberry Ice Cream starts out as a rich cooked custard mixture, awaiting the addition of heavy cream and lightly crushed and sweetened berries. The liquid mixture that is to be churned into ice cream is made up a day in advance and refrigerated to chill thoroughly. When the ice cream has frozen and thickened into a cold soft mass, the berries are added; incorporating the fruit at this stage seems to keep the flavor vibrant. Scoops of homemade strawberry ice cream, covered with strawberry sauce, and served with a pile of plain sugar cookies -- that's heaven.
Using berries in a spring (or summer) baked fruit pudding is a fine alternative to -- and relief from -- eating the fruit raw. The Strawberry Bread Pudding is based on slices of egg bread, whole eggs and egg yolks, and cream. It is quick to assemble. The custard mixture poured over the bread and fruit is quite delicate, and for that reason, the pudding is baked in a water bath, a process that protects the pudding from the intense and direct heat of the oven.
To set up a water bath, you'll need to fill a deep baking pan (larger than the pudding dish) with warm water to rise about halfway up the side of the pudding dish. The whole unit is placed on the oven rack. Using this method, the pudding is cooked slowly, but completely and evenly without curdling, by means of diffused heat.
Warm bread pudding is delicious when partnered with a custard sauce or softly whipped cream. In season, nectarine or peach slices may be substituted for the strawberries; when using peaches or nectarines, add 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg to the cream and egg mixture.
Following are recipes that showcase plump and juicy strawberries: CREAM WAFFLES WITH LEMON-STRAWBERRY SAUCE (4 servings)
These waffles are cloud light -- egg whites beaten until stiff and sweetened with granulated sugar are folded into the waffle batter just before baking.
FOR THE WAFFLES:
2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour (stir lightly to aerate before measuring)
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar
3 jumbo eggs, at room temperature, separated
1 cup light cream, at room temperature, blended with 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk, at room temperature
4 tablespoons salted butter, melted and cooled
FOR THE LEMON-STRAWBERRY SAUCE:
2 pints strawberries, hulled and thickly sliced
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
Finely grated zest (yellow part only) of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
For the waffles: Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and 1 tablespoon sugar into a large mixing bowl. In another bowl, beat together the egg yolks, cream, milk and butter. Make a large well in the center of the dry ingredients, blend in the liquid ingredients, whisking as you pour; beat the batter until it is smooth. In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until firm peaks are formed, then beat in remaining 3 tablespoons sugar and continue whipping until stiff peaks are formed. Beat in 1/4 of the egg whites, then fold in the remainder.
Let the waffle mixture stand for 15 minutes while you make the sauce.
For the sauce: Combine the berries, sugar, lemon zest and juice in a large heavy, noncorrosive saucepan. Set over medium heat and bring to the boil, stirring. Boil 3 minutes. Remove the berries to a side bowl with a slotted spoon; boil the remaining juices for 3 minutes. Pour the lightly thickened juices over the berries; stir. Use the sauce immediately, or cool and refrigerate in a sealed container for up to 1 week. Serve the sauce hot or warm.
Make the waffles as specified according to the directions supplied with your specific type of waffle iron. Serve the hot waffles topped with a ladle of strawberry sauce. STRAWBERRY PIE (6 servings)
For this pie filling, sliced berries are cooked with sugar and cornstarch, which acts as the binding agent for holding together whole strawberries; this method keeps the fresh, sunny flavor of the fruit intact. The contrasts of buttery, flaky pastry, the sweetness of the cooked berries, and the juiciness of the whole berries make this pie memorable. Serve slices of the pie with sweetened whipped cream.
FOR THE PASTRY DOUGH ( For one 9-inch pie shell):
1 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour (stir to aerate before measuring)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into cubes, cold
2 tablespoons sugar
1 jumbo egg yolk, cold
2 tablespoons ice-cold water, or more to bind
FOR THE STRAWBERRY PIE FILLING:
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
4 pints strawberries, hulled
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
FOR SERVING (optional):
1 cup whipping cream, cold
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
Make the pastry: Place flour and salt in a large mixing bowl; scatter over the butter and, using 2 round-bladed knives, cut the butter into the flour until reduced to small pea-size bits. With your finger tips, further blend the butter into the flour by gently scooping down into the mixture and rubbing the butter and flour between your finger tips. The mixture should resemble medium-coarse cornmeal. Scatter over the sugar and stir it in with a few swift strokes. Combine the egg yolk and water. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the liquid; quickly combine everything to make a firm but pliable dough. Add only enough additional water, if necessary, by half teaspoons, if the dough seems crumbly or does not adhere in a rough mass. Turn the dough onto a cool working surface and press it together with your finger tips to form a large, flat round cake (not a ball). Refrigerate, covered in waxed paper, for 15 minutes.
Roll out the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface into a large circle, using quick, light strokes of the rolling pin. Line a standard 9-inch pie dish with the dough: First cut strips of dough about 1/3-inch thick from the outside circle of dough, keeping the shape of the circle intact. Lightly brush the rim of the pie dish with cold water and affix strips of dough to the rim. Place the circle of dough into the pan; press down the bottom and sides of the dough. Press the dough on top of the rim of dough to form a thickish double rim of dough. With the back of a knife, make long scoring marks on the dough to give it a bit of depth and texture. Flute the edges decoratively.
The dough may be prepared ahead to this point; cover the pie shell with plastic wrap, slide into a plastic bag, close, and refrigerate for up to 2 days before baking.
To bake the tart shell, line the chilled pie with a single sheet of aluminum foil. Pour raw rice or dried beans right up to the top of the shell. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees with a cookie sheet set on the lower third level rack. Bake the shell for 10 minutes; remove the rice and foil, lower the temperature to 375 degrees and continue baking the shell for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until it turns a nut-brown color all over. Cool the baked shell in the pan on a metal cooling rack.
To prepare the filling: Combine the sugar and cornstarch in a large saucepan; stir together very well so that the mixture resembles a fine powder; set aside. Slice thickly 1 pint of the hulled berries; bruise the berries lightly with the back of a spoon or fork and stir in the lemon juice. Keep the remaining 3 pints of berries whole.
Stir the sliced berries into the cornstarch mixture. Set over moderate heat and bring to the boil, stirring gently. Boil the mixture until it has thickened and turned translucent; this mixture will be quite thick. Cool for 10 minutes, then fold into the whole berries. Pile the filling into the cooled crust; let stand at room temperature at least 2 hours before cutting into slices with a sharp serrated knife. (The pie may be prepared 8 hours before serving; keep at room temperature.)
For serving: Whip the cream to the soft peak stage. Add the confectioners' sugar and continue whipping until blended in. Serve the pie with mounds of whipped cream. Baking note: the cooked cornstarch mixture will appear quite thick, but when blended with the berries will thin slightly. A thinner cornstarch mixture would liquify when combined with the fruit and form a soup pie filling. STRAWBERRY BREAD PUDDING (8 servings)
The basis for this pudding -- in addition to fresh cream and eggs -- is a loaf of good-quality egg bread which, when sliced, is perfect material for absorbing the custard mixture. Stale brioche, sliced thickly, is a good substitute for the loaf of bread.
1 cup sliced red, ripe strawberries
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
10 slices good-quality egg bread, trimmed of crusts and halved
4 extra-large or jumbo eggs, at room temperature
4 extra-large or jumbo egg yolks, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups light cream, at room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
To finish: about 3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar, for sprinkling.
Lightly butter the inside of an oval oven-to-table baking dish, measuring approximately 14-by-8-by-2 inches; set aside.
Layer the strawberry slices on sheets of paper toweling to drain thoroughly.
Using the 4 tablespoons butter, lightly butter the slices of bread on both sides and lay them, overlapping, on the bottom of the baking dish. Tuck slices of strawberries between the overlapping sections of the bread.
Whisk together the whole eggs, egg yolks and sugar. Beat in the nutmeg, cream and vanilla. Carefully pour the custard mixture over the bread and berries, holding down the bread with a spatula or pancake turner as the batter circulates around and about the bread.
Set the oval dish in a larger baking dish filled with enough warm water to rise about 1 inch up the sides of the pudding dish. Place the whole assembly on the lower third level rack of a 350-degree oven and bake for about 40 minutes. The pudding has baked through when a knife inserted in the center withdraws clean.
Carefully remove the pudding dish from the pan of water (the easiest way to accomplish this is to put on a pair of rubber gloves and quickly lift the dish onto a nearby cooling rack). Cool for 20 minutes.
Sieve confectioners' sugar over the top of the pudding just before serving. Accompany the pudding with lightly sweetened whipped cream, if you like. COMPOTE OF STRAWBERRIES IN ORANGE SYRUP (4 to 6 servings)
This compote is a simple and refreshing blend of fruit bathed in a light syrup sharpened by citrus juice and peel. It's good served on its own, with big spoonfuls of whipped cream, and it's also splendid when partnered with any kind of homemade poundcake.
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup water
Finely grated zest (colored part only) of 1 lemon and 1 orange
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup orange-flavored liqueur
2 pints red, ripe strawberries
1 cup whipping cream, cold
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar, or more to taste
Fresh mint sprigs for serving
For the syrup: Place the sugar, water and fruit zests in a noncorrosive saucepan; cover and cook over low heat until every granule of sugar has dissolved. Uncover the pot, raise the heat to high and bring the liquid to a boil; boil 5 minutes. Add the lemon and orange juice; boil 1 minute. Add the orange liqueur, stir, and boil 3 minutes. Cool to room temperature. (The syrup may be prepared ahead and stored in the refrigerator in a tightly covered container. The syrup keeps for up to 3 weeks; return to room temperature before using.)
About 1 hour before serving, carefully rinse the berries to remove any grit. Hull the berries, or leave the stems and leaves on, if you like, for a pretty effect.
Place the berries in a bowl and pour over syrup. Toss carefully. Let the berries marinate in the syrup at room temperature. If you are using the cream accompaniment, whip the cream until very soft peaks are formed, beat in the confectioners' sugar, and continue beating for a few seconds longer to incorporate the sugar.
Serve the berries in deep bowls, topped with a puff of whipped cream, and garnish with mint sprigs. STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM (Makes about 3 pints)
A rich and creamy ice cream interrupted by chunks of sugar-marinated strawberries.
1 cup sugar
4 jumbo egg yolks, at room temperature, beaten to blend
2 cups light cream, at room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups whipping cream, cold
1 pint red, ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced
Whisk together 3/4 cup sugar, salt, and egg yolks in a heavy saucepan. Blend in the light cream, slowly beating as it is added. Set the pan over low heat and cook until the mixture lightly coats the back of a wooden spoon, stirring all the while. This will take at least 10 minutes, if not longer. (Do not attempt to hurry the thickening process, as high heat will curdle the egg yolks.) Remove the mixture from the heat. Stir in the vanilla and heavy cream. Cool completely. Refrigerate the ice cream base in a covered container overnight.
The next day, stir together the strawberries and 1/4 cup sugar; let stand for 30 minutes, or until the sugar has dissolved completely. (Allowing the berries to macerate in the sugar breaks down the fibers in the fruit and intensifies the flavor.)
Churn the chilled ice cream base in an ice cream maker according to the directions supplied by the manufacturer. When the mixture just starts to freeze into ice cream, about three-quarters into the churning process, add the strawberry mixture (including any juices), and continue freezing. Let the ice cream mellow in the freezer for a few hours before serving.