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Berry good treats: Sweeten up your summer with strawberries

Last week I got a reminder on my phone. “Be sure to check to see if PYO (Pick Your Own) strawberry season has begun.” These are the kind of alerts a food writer posts to remind herself that a local fruit might finally be in season. I called my nearby farm and heard the recording I wait for all year: “Strawberries are here and the picking is perfect. We’ll be open until noon for pick-your-own. Come on by!”

I grabbed my most beat-up jeans and least favorite t-shirt (picking strawberries means eating strawberries, and when it’s June, it means lots of dripping sweet red juice all over said least favorite t-shirt!). I got in the car and, coffee in hand, was in the strawberry fields before 9:15 a.m. There weren’t many people out this early. In all honesty, I was the only one there without a toddler or infant strapped to my back. It was a group of happy mothers who had planted their toddlers in the fields next to a fully-ripe plant to eat to their heart’s content while they went off picking. No babies cried. No babies fussed. It was a woman-powered strawberry appreciation hour.

The sun heated up and you could smell the straw surrounding the plants as the fields warmed up. There were plenty of perfectly ripe, fully red, fully sweet berries to pick. Within an hour, I had picked more than ten pounds of berries.

When I got home my husband grabbed a few and simply muttered, “Wow! Nice work!”

Over the next few days, there was a strawberry vanilla cake, strawberry muffins, strawberry-almond crumble and strawberry galette. There were smoothies and chocolate-dipped strawberries and much snacking. They topped our morning yogurt and were very often the last thing we ate before bed.

Storage

Ripe strawberries won’t last long. They are so juicy and fragile that they really should be consumed within two, maybe three, days, depending on the weather. I refuse to refrigerate them because the cold air of the refrigerator really plays with the texture of a fresh berry. However, if you don’t plan on eating them or cooking with them within 48 hours,  you want to store them in an airtight container lined with a paper towel to absorb the fresh fruit’s moisture. Place them in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator. Better yet, make jam. Puree them for a strawberry puree layer in a cake or topping a muffin or toast. Strawberries can also be frozen to enjoy later in the year. Remove the stem end and cut in half and place on a cookie sheet. Freeze until almost hard and carefully place them in an airtight container or plastic bag, label the bag, and freeze for up to 3 months.

Cleaning

Fresh strawberries, even just picked organic berries, should be gently washed under cold running water. I generally only wash the berries that I’m going to eat or cook with right away. I store them unwashed and wash them only as needed. If you wash them all ahead of time and store them, they can get soggy.

Macerate those berries

“Macerate” is a fancy-sounding term that simply refers to releasing the natural sweetness in the berry by letting it “marinate” with a touch of sugar.

When you sprinkle fresh strawberries (or any berries for that matter) with sugar and let them sit at room temperature for 15 or 40 minutes the sugar draws out and heightens the natural sweetness in the berry. A fruity syrupy juice is released at the bottom of the bowl. It’s best to slice the strawberries before you macerate to release the maximum amount of syrup.

Strawberry sour cream muffins. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Strawberry sour cream muffins

Serve these fruit-filled muffins for breakfast, a snack or dessert. You can cut them in half, slather them with butter and brown them up in a griddle or large skillet. You can serve them as is, with butter and strawberry jam on the side, or serve them with the strawberry puree below in the cake recipe.

Makes 18 muffins.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups coarsely chopped fresh hulled strawberries
  • ⅓ cup plus 1 cup sugar
  • 3 ½ cups flour, 420 grams
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon fine salt
  • 2 large eggs and 1 egg yolk
  • 1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract


Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter or spray cooking spray to generously grease the bottom and sides of the muffin tray; or you can add a cupcake or muffin liner.
  2. Place the strawberries in a bowl and gently toss with the ⅓ cup sugar. Let macerate for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour at room temperature.
  3. In a bowl sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add the eggs and egg yolk and whisk to incorporate. Slowly whisk in the melted butter, milk, sour cream and vanilla until combined. Gently fold in the strawberries and any juices that have formed in the bottom of the bowl.
  4. Spoon the batter into the muffin tins, dividing them equally. There should be enough batter to fill the tins almost to the rim.
  5. Bake on the middle shelf for about 35 minutes, or until the muffins have puffed up, turned golden brown and spring back when you gently push down on the middle with your finger.
  6. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before removing the muffins from the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature. The muffins will keep in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.


Strawberry-almond crumble. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Strawberry-almond crumble

This is for all those who think making a pie is too challenging and time-consuming. You macerate fresh strawberries (throw in a little rhubarb if you have it or mix with other seasonal berries) with some light brown sugar and then top it all off with a mixture of flour, almond flour, sugar, butter and granola. You can put this together in no time at all, and the results are every bit as impressive as a pie! Serve on its own or topped with whipped cream, Greek-style yogurt or ice cream.

Serves 4 to 6.

Ingredients

The fruit:

  • 2 ½ cups strawberries, about 650 grams, cut in half or left whole, or 2 cups strawberries and ½ cup rhubarb, cut into ½ inch pieces, or other berries
  • About ⅓ to ½ cup light brown sugar, depending on freshness, ripeness and sweetness of berries


The almond topping:

  • 1 cup flour, 120 grams
  • ½ cup almond flour, 60 grams
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ packed cup light brown sugar, about 80 grams
  • 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted chilled butter, cut into small cubes or grated
  • ¾ cup granola


Instructions

  1. Macerate the berries: place the berries in a bowl and sprinkle with the brown sugar; toss gently. Let sit at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes to bring out the sweetness.
  2. Meanwhile, make the topping: in a large bowl mix the flour, almond flour, salt and sugar together. Add the butter and, using your hands or a pastry mixer, blend the butter into the flour mixture until it’s the size of peas. Stir in the granola.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  4. Place the berries into an 8 or 9-inch gratin dish or pie plate. Spoon on the almond topping, pressing down gently to create a topping that covers all the fruit. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to several hours.
  5. Place the crumble on a rimmed cookie sheet to catch any juices that spill over while it bakes. Bake on the middle shelf for 20 minutes. Reduce the oven to 350 degrees and bake another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling.
  6. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Vanilla cake with strawberry preserves, vanilla frosting and strawberries

Vanilla cake with strawberry preserves, vanilla frosting and strawberries. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

There are several elements to this cake, but none take much time or, to be honest, much skill. This is a single cake cut in half to make two layers. You can easily double the entire recipe and make two layers cut in half to create a 4-layer cake.

Serves 6 to 8.

Ingredients

The cake:

  • ¾ cup unsalted butter at room temperature, plus butter for greasing the cake pan
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 ⅛ teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch fine salt
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 140 grams
  • ½ cup milk


The strawberry puree:

  • 1 cup strawberries, hulled and cut in half
  • About 1 tablespoon sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon juice


The vanilla frosting and strawberries

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
  • Pinch fine salt
  • 2 ½ to 3 tablespoons heavy cream or milk
  • About 1 pint strawberries, hulled and left whole or cut in half lengthwise if large


Instructions

  1. Make the cake: butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch cake pan; set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or a hand-held mixer, beat butter, sugar, baking powder and salt until light and creamy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the egg, egg yolk and the vanilla and beat until smooth. Add 1⁄3 of the flour and blend. Add half the milk. Add another third of the flour and beat until smooth and then add the remaining milk. Add the remaining flour and beat until the flour is just incorporated.
  3. Spoon the batter into the prepared cake pan and, using a soft spatula, smooth out the top. Place on the middle shelf and bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The cake should just be pulling away from the sides of the cake pan. Remove and cool to room temperature.
  4. Meanwhile, make the puree: Place the berries, sugar and lemon juice into a blender or food processor until almost smooth. Remove and set aside.
  5. Make the frosting: In a stand mixer with paddle attachment or a hand-held mixer, beat the butter in a bowl until soft and creamy. Add the sifted sugar, vanilla, salt and 2 ½ tablespoons of the cream. Beat until fully incorporated and creamy. Add additional cream if the frosting is too thick. Cover and chill until ready to frost the cake.
  6. When the cake is cool, use a serrated knife to cut the cake in half horizontally to create two layers. Place one layer on a cake plate and spread the puree on top, making sure to keep about 1 inch around the rim of the cake without the puree. Cover with the second layer. Spoon the frosting on top and, using an off-set spatula, spread the frosting smoothly on top of the cake and along the sides, if you like. Top with the strawberries, hulled side down. Chill until ready to serve, about 1 to 12 hours.

Other favorite strawberry recipes

  • Click here for recipes for buttermilk shortcakes with strawberries, strawberries with brown sugar and sour cream, roasted strawberries and arugula salad.
  • Click here for recipes for roasted strawberry summer salad, strawberry-ginger jam, strawberry glazed pie.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Strawberries in a strawberry field. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
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Strawberries in a strawberry field. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

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