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Delectable fruit brings endless joy to the dessert table Strawberries Forever

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sweet, plump, ruby-red jewels. Strawberries -- freshly harvested, still warm from the sun and so fabulously fragrant that it's no surprise they are a member of the rose family.

They're so aromatic that Madame Taillien, a prominent figure at the court of Napoleon, used their juice to sweeten her bathwater -- about 22 pounds of fresh strawberries per tub.

Think of the strawberry tarts that would have made.

Forget the bath. It's the straightforward strawberry desserts that win devotion. The natural sweetness of fresh strawberries makes them the focal point of many delectable confections.

Browsing through a stack of recent cookbooks, it's apparent that I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for strawberry desserts. Practically every cookbook (even those with only four or five dessert recipes), have at least one dessert that showcases fresh strawberries.

In her book "Gooey Desserts -- The Joy of Decadence" (1994), Sacramento-based cookbook author Elaine Corn suggests combining fresh strawberries with bananas, sweetened whipped cream and sour cream to make a dynamite topping and filling for angel food cake. Although Ms. Corn uses a made-from-scratch angel food cake, you could save time by substituting a store-bought cake. This dessert is assembled at least four hours in advance and stored in the refrigerator.

In their cookbook "Two Chefs Cook for Family and Friends" (1994), Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton have a wonderful recipe for Strawberries in Beaujolais Sauce, an intensely red strawberry dessert -- a sauce with barely cooked strawberries -- that is served warm with ice cream or frozen yogurt. The sauce is a combination of a caramel sauce that is cooked with an entire bottle of red wine; it's reduced in volume until thickened, then sliced strawberries cook in the sauce for about five minutes.

The flavors are exquisite.

A low-fat, tasty option is to serve fresh strawberries with a variety of healthy dips based on nonfat yogurt or nonfat sour cream. Serve one to three dips with a large bowl of berries -- for a snack, appetizer or the grand finale after dinner. For larger groups, when "dipping" or passing bowls isn't appropriate, layer one of the dips with fresh strawberries in individual parfait glasses.

Strawberry Tart With Chocolate Pastry Cream

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 "All Ready Crust" (half of a 15-ounce package), room temperature

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

pinch of salt

1 1/4 cups milk

2 egg yolks, beaten

1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

about 20 fresh strawberries; number will vary according to size

red currant glaze (recipe follows)

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Open crust on work surface. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon flour. Rub over crust, rubbing out creases. Place floured-side down in a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Gently push sides against the sides of the pan. Fold over excess dough to double the width of the sides; press together. Press down the top edge of the crust to make the top of the dough even with the top of the pan. Pierce all over the crust with the tines of a fork.

Line crust with a sheet of aluminum foil. Fill with pie weights or about 2 cups uncooked beans. Bake in 400-degree oven 10 minutes. Remove aluminum foil and beans (or weights). Return crust to oven and bake another 10 to 13 minutes or until nicely browned and thoroughly cooked. Cool and brush bottom with a little red currant glaze (recipe follows). This will help make the crust moisture-proof.

For the pastry cream, combine sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Scald milk in a small saucepan and pour into dry ingredients. Whisk over medium-low heat and bring to boil. Reduce to a simmer and simmer 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in egg yolks. Simmer 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate, butter and vanilla. Stir until chocolate melts. Cool.

While the pastry cream is cooling, hull the strawberries and drain them upside-down on paper towels for at least 15 minutes (to avoid a soggy tart later). Spread cooled pastry cream in cooled, baked crust. Place strawberries, pointed end up, in concentric circles on top of tart. Brush strawberries with red currant glaze and refrigerate up to 24 hours.

To serve, garnish with berry leaves and flowers, if desired. Or garnish each serving with a chocolate-dipped strawberry.

Red Currant Glaze: In a small saucepan, place 1 cup red currant jelly. Heat jelly on low heat until melted; simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1 tablespoon orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier. Stir to combine.

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This recipe has been adapted from "Two Chefs Cook For Family and Friends" by Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, 1994.

Strawberries in Beaujolais Sauce

Makes 6 servings

6 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons water

1 3-inch cinnamon stick

1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

10 whole black peppercorns

2 whole cloves

1 bottle (750 ml) Beaujolais or merlot

6 cups fresh strawberries

vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt

In a heavy-bottomed large saucepan, stir together sugar, water, cinnamon, vanilla, peppercorns and cloves. Bring to boil, without stirring again, and cook until mixture is a dark caramel color.

Remove from heat and immediately pour in the wine (be careful (( to avoid spattering). Stir well until the caramel melts again. Cook over high heat until the liquid is reduced by about half -- about 15 to 20 minutes. Strain into a bowl. Discard spices left in strainer.

Hull strawberries and slice them lengthwise 1/4 -inch thick. Pour the wine sauce into a 10-inch skillet with high sides.

Bring to a boil, add the strawberries and cook over high heat for 5 minutes, until the strawberries are soft and dark red. With a slotted spoon, remove to rimmed dessert plates.

Reduce the sauce over high heat to thicken it; pour sauce over the berries.

Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with a scoop of ice cream or frozen yogurt.

Honey-Almond Dip

Makes about 3/4 cup dip, enough for 6 servings

2/3 cup plain nonfat yogurt

3 tablespoons toasted, slivered almonds, finely chopped

2 1/2 tablespoons honey

NB Stir ingredients until blended. Serve with fresh strawberries.

Strawberry Cream Dip

Makes about 3/4 cup dip, enough for 6 servings

1/2 cup fat-free sour cream

1/4 cup strawberry fruit spread (no sugar added) or strawberry jam

NB Stir ingredients until blended. Serve with fresh strawberries.

Fresh Lemon-Poppy Seed Dip

Makes about 3/4 cup dip, enough for 6 servings

2/3 cup fat-free sour cream

4 teaspoons honey

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel

NB Stir ingredients until blended. Serve with fresh strawberries.

Chocolate Fudge Dip

Makes about 3/4 cup dip, enough for 6 servings

6 tablespoons plain nonfat yogurt

6 tablespoons prepared chocolate fudge sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed

NB Stir ingredients until blended. Serve with fresh strawberries.

The following recipe is from "Gooey Desserts -- The Joy of Decadence" by Elaine Corn (Prima Publishing, 1994).

Fluffy Strawberry-Banana Cake

Makes 8 to 10 servings

ANGEL FOOD CAKE:

1 cup cake flour (sifted before measuring)

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups egg whites (whites from 12 or 13 large eggs), at room temperature

1 1/4 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup additional sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

FILLING:

2 cups whipping cream

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar (to taste)

1 cup sour cream

2 pints fresh strawberries

1 to 2 bananas, cut in small dice

For cake, set oven rack in the center of the oven and heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix flour with sugar and sift 3 more times. In another bowl, beat egg whites, cream of tartar and salt until stiff. (If whites are cold, hold bowl over a pan of hot water to warm them a little.) Gradually add remaining 1 cup sugar and beat until stiff again. Fold in vanilla.

Fold flour mixture, 2 tablespoons at a time, into the whites, using a big rubber spatula and making wide, gentle strokes. Pour batter into 2 ungreased 9- or 8-inch round cake pans. Bake 25 minutes or until the place where you press your finger springs back, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let cakes cool on a rack, upside-down in their pans, for 1 hour. Run a thin knife around the rim of each pan to free any stuck areas. Go around each cake gently, lifting up an inch at a time, using a thin frosting spatula. Cake will pull free. Remove layers from pan. Trim, if necessary, to make layers perfectly flat and round.

You can substitute a store-bought angel food cake if you prefer.

For filling, in a cold bowl with cold beaters, whip cream and sugar to stiff peaks. Fold in sour cream.

Using a long, serrated knife, split each layer in half horizontally.

To 1 cup whipped cream-sour cream mixture add 1/2 cup diced strawberries and 1/2 cup diced bananas. Fill and frost layers. Use remaining whipped cream-sour cream mixture to frost outside of the entire cake.

Garnish with leftover strawberries and bananas. Chill at least 4 hours. You may have to touch up frosted areas as cake firms.

To serve, press more bananas around bottom edge of cake.

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