Summertime and the livin' is easy/fish are jumpin', and the cotton is high... But best of all, it's berry time again! Before the concept of seasonality became extinct, the herald of summer was the strawberry (Fragaria spp), of which 16th century writer William Butler said: "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did."
Its botanical name derives from the Latin word fraga , meaning fragrance, a reference to the exquisite scent of the tiny wild European strawberry, F. vesca 'Semperflorens' . The English word is believed to have come from the practice of laying straw around the plants to keep the fruits off the soil.
Strawberry - origins & varieties
The familiar, modern, large strawberry is a relative newcomer, born after a French naval officer by the name of Frèzier brought back the pine strawberry (F. chiloensis ) from the foothills of the Andes in 1712. This variety, which produced berries up to the size of a small apple, was crossed with the native North American wild strawberry, F. virginiana , and the result was a large, flavoursome strawberry, F. x ananassa , ancestor of the modern cultivated strawberry.
Sadly, the pursuit of uniformity of size and the ability to withstand both transportation and storage has resulted in large, hard, tasteless apologies for strawberries without a skerrick of the glorious fragrance for which they were named. For berries that match Butler's description, you'll have to hunt them down at farmers' markets or grow your own. Strawberries aren't difficult to grow and you don't need a huge garden either. Kept moist and well-fertilised (they are hungry plants!), they will thrive in strawberry pots on balconies.
Heritage varieties have become more readily available from nurseries. One variety to look out for is the old English strawberry, Cambridge Rival: it is everything that a real strawberry should be. The exceptionally intense flavour of the wild strawberry - of which the Alpine strawberry is one variety - makes it worth growing from seed.
Raspberries & other cane berries
As summer rolls on, the strawberry shares the stage with berries of the genus Rubus : raspberries, blackberries and two cultivars of the latter, loganberries and boysenberries. Whilst raspberries are usually thought of as red fruits and blackberries black, both actually come in a range of colours. The former comes in white, yellow, pink and red whilst the latter's colour ranges from purple to black.
Berry Dessert Ideas
Of all the berries, it is the strawberry that earned the reputation of being a love potion. How could one not fall in love with luscious, fragrant strawberries bleeding their sweet juices through thick cream or crème fraîche or rich buttery shortcakes? The original Eton Mess was simply chopped up strawberries with cream. A nice variation on this classic dessert is to add roughly crushed meringues through the mixture of strawberries and cream just before serving.
For strawberries Romanov, marinate the fruit in fresh orange juice and curaçao and serve with cream.
Strawberries marry well with hazelnuts. Make thin meringue or sweet buttery biscuits discs using ground hazelnuts. Assemble a "mille feuille"-like stack of berries between the hazelnut meringue or biscuit discs.
A dessert of raspberries or any of the other cane berries with fresh cream or late summer peaches or other stone fruit is perfection in simplicity. Summer pudding doesn't have to be made with bread: try using panettone or sponge cake for interesting variations.
Whilst strawberries don't lend themselves well to cooking beyond jam-making, the Rubus berries make wonderful dessert pies, whether on their own or in combination with apples or stone fruit.
Tips for freezing berries
Unlike strawberries, all the Rubus berries can be frozen with reasonable success. Spread them in a single layer - keeping the individual berries apart - on trays, sprinkle lightly with icing sugar and place the trays in the freezer until the berries are frozen solid, before packing them away into bags. This way, they retain their shape as individual berries rather than becoming a mushy mass. They are still delicious when defrosted. Whilst you wouldn't use them for decorative effect as they look rather "flabby", they are fine for turning into berry coulis or making other cooked desserts.
Recipe: BERRY MERINGUE TART
This dessert uses an Italian meringue which is essentially a 'cooked' meringue. It's a very stable meringue that keeps well, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for a few days. Despite the quantity of sugar, it's not a very sweet dessert. In fact, it's incredibly light with the berries buried in a soft meringue cloud.
Use any type of fresh berries except strawberries - the latter just doesn't work particularly well. I like it best with a mixture of raspberries, blackberries and blueberries but even just raspberries on their own still give a lovely result.
You can also make a berry coulis to accompany the tart.
Don't get put off by the length of this recipe - it's not hard or complicated. I am just trying to be as detailed as possible about the steps.
600 g mixed berries
For the pastry case:
250 g plain flour
Generous pinch salt
150 g cold butter, cut into tiny cubes
1 egg yolk (size 60 g egg)
1 - 2 tbsp cold water
1 egg white for glazing the tart shell
For the meringue:
180 g egg whites (from approx 6 x 60g eggs)
80 ml water
360 g sugar
Prepare the pastry case:
- Place the flour and salt in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse a few times to 'sift' the flour.
- Add the cubed butter pieces and pulse until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Beat the egg yolk with about 1 tbsp water. With food processor running, add the beaten egg yolk. Dribble a little more water if required to enable the dough to come together into a ball.
- Stop the machine as soon as the dough comes together. Knead the dough lightly and press out into a circle on a sheet of cling film. Wrap tightly and leave it to rest in the refrigerator for at least one hour.
- Brush a 26 cm loose bottomed tart tin (ie one with a removable base) with melted butter. Roll out the pastry into a circle large enough to line the tin. Leave to rest in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes. [You can also make individual tartlets if you prefer - I made tartlets using 10.5 cm tins for these photos. ]
- Preheat the oven to 220ºC. Prick the pastry with the tip of a small knife or the tines of a fork. Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper and fill it with pastry weights. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. (This is called baking blind.)
- Take the tin out of the oven and carefully remove the pastry weights with a spoon. Remove the greaseproof paper. Gently brush the pastry case with beaten egg white. Return to the oven and bake for a further 5 - 10 minutes until the pastry is lightly coloured. Leave on a wire rack to cool.
- Lower the temperature of the oven to 180ºC.
Make the meringue:
- Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment.
- Put the water and sugar in a large heavy based saucepan over moderate heat. Keep stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. (The sugar should be fully dissolved before the syrup comes to the boil.) Skim off any scum that forms and constantly brush the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in cold water to wash down any sugar crystals form on the sides of the pan.
- Once all the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat. Do not stir the mixture anymore but keep brushing down the sides of the pan to wash down sugar crystals.
- Check the temperature of the boiling syrup from time to time with a sugar thermometer. Once the syrup comes to 110ºC, start whisking the egg whites until they are stiff. You won't have to brush the sides of the pan down anymore as crystallisation stops occurring by this stage.
- Keep an eye on the temperature of the syrup whilst the egg whites are being whisked. As soon as the temperature of the syrup comes to 121ºC remove the syrup from the heat. Reduce the speed of the mixture to the lowest setting and with the mixer running, pour the boiling syrup in a thin steady stream into the whites. Try to avoid the syrup running over the whisk.
- Continue to whisk the meringue at low speed until it almost completely cold. This will take about 20 - 25 minutes.
Assembling & baking the tart:
- Set aside about a third of the meringue in a clean bowl.
- Gently fold the berries into the remaining two thirds of meringue. Pour the berry meringue mixture into the prepared pastry case and spread it evenly.
- Carefully spread the meringue mixture that was set aside to evenly cover the berry meringue mixture.
- Bake the tart in the preheated 180ºC oven for 15 minutes. The meringue topping should be lightly coloured.
- Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
- Serve on its own or with berry coulis.
Foodstuff (author) from Australia on April 19, 2015:
Thanks, Rangoon House. Do try it!
AJ from Australia on April 19, 2015:
Your berry meringue looks divine. I'm so accustomed to lemon meringue - this looks like a delicious alternative.
Foodstuff (author) from Australia on April 28, 2011:
Right on, slideseven. I LOVE the UK MasterChef program. And I am very chuffed that you think mine looks as good as theirs! Thank you!
slideseven from UK on April 28, 2011:
Was watching the Final of 'MasterChef' on British TV (BBC1) last night and the three finalists all produced a 'pudding' as they call it -as exquisite as yours looks in the photos.
Home baked always tastes better than shop bought I think -for you know exactly what the ingredients are and it is fresh, not having sat in a fridge for a couple of days before being put out on sale.
Foodstuff (author) from Australia on April 27, 2011:
Hypnotherapy-Guru from Idaho on April 27, 2011:
Delicious! Great ideas for berries with summer coming up.
Foodstuff (author) from Australia on April 27, 2011:
Thank you, MarioByDesign. Glad you like this, slideseven.
slideseven from UK on April 27, 2011:
MarloByDesign from United States on April 27, 2011:
Wow, I am getting hungry just reading this - beautiful pictures.