The arrival of summer, in Ohio, means that trips to the farmers market finally yield treasures beyond eggs, meat, and cheese. I grew rather spoiled in North Carolina where there really is a selection of fresh produce all year long. Sure, January is primarily sweet potatoes and greens, but even the flashy summer-show-offs like asparagus and strawberries begin to appear in early March.
But here, I stalk the market every Saturday in May hoping that this is the week when those photogenic strawberries will finally make their annual debut.
The trouble is, I have very little self-control when I secure, at last, these scarlet gems. The bulk discounts for buying more than one quart literally always get me, and I arrive at home suddenly doubting that I’ll be able to use up multiple quarts of berries before they wither and rot in my fridge.
A little over two months ago (gah, has it already been that long?) one of Brad’s friends from law school invited us over for a dinner with him and his wife, and we were asked to bring dessert. I had a busy week at work, so Brad volunteered to make our contribution. How kind of him to volunteer to prepare a dish to represent us at a dinner with his friends, yes?
It really was very nice of him. But you see I have this slight love of baking cakes, and the night before the dinner, I my control-freak-baking-nature took hold. I wanted to make something easy, tasty, and pretty, and I wanted to make it now.
This cake, you guys, is all of the above.
To be honest, I put this combo together the weekend before when testing a final batch of recipes for Scott & Crystal’s wedding cake. Enrobed in Swiss Meringue Buttercream, this chocolate cake with strawberries and whipped cream was a favorite and made it into the ceremony cake.
But it’s far too good to reserve only for wedding cake. This version is doable in less than 2 hours and doesn’t require the effort of icing the exterior. The cream and berries are icing enough, and it makes a stunning, seasonal dessert for dinner parties, summer barbecues, or birthdays.
The last three days, I think I’ve been on my first faux-cation. That’s right. A vacation that’s not real. It’s not like I’m actually even on vacation but just not going anywhere, which is a staycation. I’m not on one of those. I just emerged from one of the more intense periods of work I’ve ever experienced, culminating in a hugely successful film festival. It was fun in that mind-bending, 17-hour work day sort of way, ya know? Rewarding, exhilarating, but exhausting. And since we wrapped up late on Sunday night, it has been nearly impossible to force myself to do ANY activity that remotely resembles work: putting dishes in the dishwasher, cooking at all (seriously, I feel like I’m at the beach, we’ve been eating at restaurants with patios to take advantage of the nice weather), grocery shopping, nothing. Each time I’ve tried to get something done, I drift into daydreams of real beach vacations, lazy days in the sun, and the slower pace that simply MUST be coming soon.
But I miss you guys. I miss testing recipes, playing with food, editing photos, and writing to you. So I finally got myself back on track, though admittedly, the “recipe” that follows is vacation-inspired, and possible even in a stress-triggered faux-cation.
I made some dang strawberry ice.
Why? Because summer is coming, which brings lemonade. And strawberry lemonade is the best lemonade, and hiding strawberries in ice cubes seemed like fun! It’s an easy, splashy way to step up your beverage game at summer cookouts and spring brunches. And all you need to make it is ice, sugar, water, and your favorite ice cube tray.
There are some foods that have always been magic to me. Tortillas, croissants, tortellini, cream puffs… those dreamy little bites that all seem borderline impossible for a person in a home kitchen to make. Incidentally, jam also mystified me. Perhaps it was really the canning part that seemed so out of reach, for until a couple years ago, I never canned my own.
I’ve learned, however, that jam is actually quite simple to make, and it doesn’t necessarily require large batches and canning. It seems you can boil together almost any fruit and have jam in a matter of minutes, ready to serve warm or to store in the fridge for many days.
This treat is a celebration of quick jam, a blend of two early harbingers of spring: strawberry and rhubarb.
While bundled stalks of rhubarb have graced the tables of the farmers market since early February, strawberries have only recently returned to the scene. Last week, a few pints of these precious red fruits have appeared between towers of broccoli and leafy greens, and just like every year, I could hardly wait to get my hands on some.
The various food blogs and aggregates I browse are alight with red, white, and blue this week. And it’s no surprise! What better way to celebrate America’s Independence Day than with some desserts that feature fresh fruit that coordinates so well with Old Glory? You probably already have your plans in place for whatever festivities await you today, but if you don’t, get out your baking gear and try this one.
These little desserts are based on a recipe out of the Joy the Baker Cookbook. I’ve mentioned before that the blog of the same name is one of my favorites to follow, and I was thrilled to finally get my hands on her cookbook. I find it inspiring that someone who is not classically trained in culinary technique, photography, or writing has created such a mind-blowingly successful blog and now has a published book to show for it.
It’s the first of many recipes in the book I’m eager to try.
Since moving away for college eight years ago (eek), I haven’t been able to spend Mother’s Day with my mom. I think I’ve lucked out for Father’s Day a couple of times as June was more conducive to cross-country travel, but Mom has had to settle for phone calls and packages.
This is a special Mother’s Day, too. My mom is retiring this year after decades of work in elementary libraries and classrooms, teaching young Coloradoans (myself included) to read, to write, and to appreciate books. I have many fond memories over the years of going to the library with my mom for work and for fun, of stapling long strips of playful bulletin board borders to the edges of her displays, of ogling over the annual book fair catalogs and knowing that if there was one place she would buy us anything we asked for, it was books. Her fervor for the written word has, no doubt, cultivated my own passion for books and penchant for writing. She’s the #1 fan of this little food blog and tenders her support through comments, encouragement, and little e-mails alerting me to typos (which, by the way, I welcome from ANYONE who spots one – I want to squash typos out like bugs). So thanks Mom! For everything. I wish I could spend today with you!
Spring (though it’s actually starting to feel more like summer here in NC) has officially begun. It seems like the trees were, just moments ago, blossoming in delicate flowers and poking little green buds into the cool air, but they are suddenly enrobed in lush, green leaves still blinking in their new-found sunshine. The daffodils and tulips have come and gone, and the light lingers a few moments more every evening.
But just in case there was any doubt:
The berries have arrived.
Glistening, ruby-red, and more photogenic than any berry I know, strawberries are the first fruit of the season to reach the farmers market in Durham. They’re the first float of the summer produce parade; it’s definitely cause for celebration.
And what better way to celebrate than with a classic, fresh, and simple strawberry shortcake?
Okay, okay, I know you might be skeptical about my use of the word “simple” when discussing a six-layer cake, but I promise, it’s really rather easy AND is so totally worth it once you have your first bite.
The berries have been picked, sliced, sugared, and cooked. Each jar has announced with a satisfying little pop! of the lid that it is sealed and ready to be stored until it is opened, its contents slathered onto someone’s breakfast. Maybe mine, maybe yours.
The final step in my eight-flavor experiment in strawberry jam (who knew there was so much variety?) was definitely the most relaxing: the tasting! Sampling each variety was hugely important, you see. I mean, how else could I tell you which ones worked and which ones didn’t? Trust me, there was no other reason to open so many jars of jam at one time.
I made a date of it. Made some biscuits, sat on the balcony, even grabbed a notepad to record my initial reactions to each jar. It was fancy. I may or may not have pretended I was a snooty judge on a Food Network show.
Soooooo, twenty-0ne pounds of strawberries. Now what?
I wish you could have seen the faces of other customers entering the strawberry field as I was attempting to tote these boxes out. Most of them looked at me with a bizarre look of pity. Like I’d gone off the deep end. And/or had a serious strawberry addiction.
In case you’re just now tuning in, I spent the early hours of sunshine last Saturday picking strawberries to transform into jam, and after arriving home with my loot, it was time to start preserving.
Freezing Fresh Berries
While most would agree that berries are best when eaten fresh & ripe, they also freeze really well. In my stubborn attempt to avoid purchasing produce when it is incredibly out of season, freezing berries opens up many possibilities to enjoy fruit when it’s snowy (or, in my current location, semi-cold and gray). Berries can be frozen in a syrup or juice, but I prefer to freeze them whole.
What You Need
cookie sheets (make sure they fit in your freezer… trust me on this one and test the space with an empty sheet before you start)
berries (if you don’t have those, you’re doing the wrooooong project)
It’s pretty straight forward. Sort through your berries and find the beauty queens. Freezing berries with soft spots isn’t the best idea, so find the nicest, firmest, most beautiful berries in the bunch. Wash them, pop off their tops and if you can, pop out the hull (the white firm spot right beneath the green leaves). Arrange them on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper so that they aren’t touching. Then freeze ’em!
I froze one sheet for about three hours and another tray for twenty-four, so I’ll keep you posted about any difference between them when I actually use them on some dreary winter day in the future. Why did I not just freeze them in their container and skip the teetering tray of berries step? This way, I will be able to pull out exactly the number of berries I want rather than one giant clump of them fused together. Just planning ahead. For smoothies. Who needs ice when you have frozen strawberries?
Strawberry jam: the first recipe in food preservation cookbooks, the poster child for all things homemade, and glistening ruby red in quilted glass jars and wrapped with a ribbon of twine.
And you can make it with tools you probably have in your kitchen already.
Now, baskets of still-earthy vegetables from the farmer’s market seem to provide the standard imagery for the local food movement, but my goal is to eat as locally as possible all year long, which involves learning how to preserve food when it is plentiful to get through months when it is not. And while jam is not the most necessary of foods, it is a great starting point if you want to learn to can. Which I do.
I’m sure you can tell where this is going: I made some jam! Okay; I made a lot of jam. So let’s rewind from this spoonful of crimson goodness, and I’ll tell you all about it.
A key ingredient of strawberry jam, as you might imagine, is a hefty amount of fresh strawberries. You can go about procuring these berries however you want, but I chose to find a local farm where I could pick them myself.
The premise of a pick-your-own farm, or a “u-pick”, as they are commonly called, is simple: a grower plants their crop, then instead of harvesting it and selling it in turquoise paper baskets, they invite customers to the farm to pick it themselves at a much lower price. While most pick-your-owns also offer some pre-picked goods for sale at the farm stand, the labor burden is significantly reduced since the majority of harvesting is done by the customers themselves. They get free labor, you get a good price on berries, it’s a pretty sweet deal.