Bowls of berries, baskets of berries, fields of berries -- the summer brings us a bounty of berries. We eat them fresh or cook them into pies, cobblers and jams. They are intertwined with memories and occasions throughout the summer: Fourth of July means strawberry shortcake, Labor Day brings blueberry cobbler, and birthdays and gatherings in between mean lots of berry pies.
There is evidence that berries were eaten and savored as long ago as 5,000 B.C. By the early 17th century, they were cultivated in kitchen gardens in England. Strawberries, in particular, were a favorite subject of European artists.
In the New World, the variety of wild berries available delighted the early settlers. The Native Americans taught them how to preserve them by drying them in the sun. High in vitamins and minerals, berries became an important part of their diet.
The invention of canning in the early 19th century led to the gradual near elimination of the local growers' markets. Farmers could now grow berries in larger quantities for people who could preserve (rather than immediately have to consume) them. The development of the railroads further aided the growth of the commercial berry market. Farmers were now able to ship larger quantities across greater distances.
At the same time, plant breeders and botanists began hybridizing new varieties of cultivated berries, improving the size and quality, making them better suited for growing on a commercial scale.
The Gold Rush of 1849 expanded the commercial berry business further. As huge numbers of pioneers flooded the West, horticultural centers on the northern and central coasts of California were established. Later, when the population migrated into the Pacific Northwest, the Willamette Valley in Oregon became a central growing region for strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries and currants.
Fourth of July Parfait
Makes 6 to 8 servings
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 cup whipping cream
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 pint fresh blueberries, stemmed and lightly sprinkled with sugar
1 pint fresh red raspberries, lightly sprinkled with sugar
fresh mint leaves or lemon balm, for garnish
Whip cream cheese and powdered sugar in medium bowl until fluffy. Slowly add whipping cream, a little at a time, and continue beating until cream is incorporated and mixture is fluffy. Add lemon juice to taste.
To assemble, use parfait glasses, tall wineglasses or champagne flutes. Spoon 1 inch of blueberries into glass, top with dollop of parfait cream and then spoon 1 inch of raspberries on top, followed by another dollop of parfait cream. Repeat layers. Garnish with mint leaves.
Makes 6 servings
Clafouti is a traditional French dessert made with cherries. This variation made with cranberries gives it a New England twist.
3 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1 1/2 cups cranberry juice or water
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons flour
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
3/4 cup whipping cream
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
whipped cream for garnish
Cook cranberries in cranberry juice in heavy saucepan over medium-low heat 5 minutes. Strain berries (reserving juice) and set aside. Return juice to saucepan and bring to boil. Continue cooking until juice is reduced to 1/4 cup, about 7 minutes.
Combine eggs, granulated sugar, flour, milk, cream and vanilla in bowl of food processor or mixer and mix about 1 minute. Pulse or stir in reduced 1/4 cup cranberry juice.
Spread cranberries over bottom of buttered 9-inch-square baking dish. Pour batter over berries. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake at 400 degrees until top is puffed and golden, 40 to 45 minutes. Serve hot or warm. Top with whipped cream.
Black, Golden and Red Raspberry Tart
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Fresh fruit tarts are beautiful, but many times the crust and filling are disappointing. The wonderful crisp texture of this cornmeal crust and creamy filling will live up to your expectations.
VENETIAN CORNMEAL CRUST:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon dark rum or water
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sifted powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
4 ounces fresh mascarpone cheese
2 cups assorted raspberries (combination of black, golden and red), washed and well dried
To prepare crust: Combine flour, cornmeal, salt and baking powder in medium bowl.
Place butter and granulated sugar in bowl of food processor and cream until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, lemon zest, egg, egg yolk and rum. Pulse until well blended. Transfer mixture to bowl containing dry ingredients and stir until well mixed. Dough should be sticky and thick. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate 30 to 60 minutes.
Divide dough in half (freeze half for another time). Knead remaining half 4 to 5 times on lightly floured surface. Sprinkle small amount of flour on dough and rolling pin to prevent sticking and roll dough into 10-inch circle, about 1/4 inch thick. If dough is sticky, roll out between two sheets of wax paper.
Ease dough carefully into 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Lightly press dough into pan. If it tears, simply press it together. Cover dough with sheet of aluminum foil and fill with 2 cups pie weights or uncooked rice or beans. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
Remove foil and pie weights and bake until crust browns slightly, 12 minutes longer. Remove from oven. Let cool 5 minutes. Carefully remove outside ring of pan. Gently slip tart shell off metal bottom with long metal spatula and carefully transfer to cooling rack. Let cool 30 minutes. Place cooled tart shell on serving plate and cover with plastic wrap until ready to fill.
To prepare filling, beat cream cheese, cream, powdered sugar and vanilla in large bowl until fluffy. Fold in mascarpone, using flexible spatula. Spread filling in cooled tart crust with flexible spatula. Top with black, golden and red raspberries, arranging berries in concentric circles. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
Sharon Kramis is the author of the newly released "Berries: A Country Garden Cookbook," Collins Publishers, San Francisco, from which this article is excerpted.