Summertime is Berry Time in Maine
The sun was so hot and the air so still this afternoon that the thought of going strawberry picking lost its appeal. But the phone message at the farm announced that the picking was “perfect.” I’d been waiting a full year for a decent strawberry, so we headed out. Once we pulled up to the side of the picking fields, we were greeted by a cool June breeze. Where did that breeze come from?
I couldn’t see any berries at first, but I could smell them. There really is no smell quite as wonderful as ripe fruit.
We squatted down in the rows and got to work quickly filling the quart containers. The fattest, ripest berries were lowest to the ground so we had to pull the plants back to search for them. It was easy, delicious work — full of the benefits of aromatherapy. It smelled like ambrosia, blooming flowers, ripe fruit, and sunshine.
Young mothers and children were picking in the rows around us (“Look, my strawberry is the biggest.” And then, “No, my strawberry is the biggest.” And then the mother: “Stop bickering and keep picking.” It brought it all back to me, picking berries with my young girls with the heat and the banter.)
Of course the best part of picking strawberries (or any berry, for that matter) is the snacking. For each ten I put in my tray I ate one. What can I say? After a winter and spring of eating “strawberry wanna-be’s” these berries were pure and juicy and the very essence of what a strawberry is all about. The red juices hit my mouth and I tasted sweetness and summer.
Local strawberries go for close to $6 a quart, but at most farms if you pick your own it costs less than half that. It’s well worth it for an hour spent in the sun amid fields of green punctuated by bright reds and pinks.
The berries made it to my kitchen without being devoured in the car (which took some serious discipline). My back was sore, but I got right to work. I froze one quart and then considered my options. Leave them whole for morning granola? A fresh smoothie with local yogurt? Pie? Jam? Although you can freeze fresh strawberries, they lose their texture, but frozen berries work well in smoothies, pies, and on top of pancakes in the winter months.
I decided to go the classic route, with a twist: gingered short cakes with whipped cream, and fresh marinated berries. When we sat down later that night to eat the strawberry shortcakes, I noticed almost immediately that my backache was gone. Or maybe it was just overshadowed by the pleasure of eating this fresh, seasonal dish.
Ginger Shortcakes with Local Strawberries and Lemon Cream
This recipe for the shortcake is very loosely based on one from James Peterson’s wonderful new book, Baking.
The Ginger Shortcakes:
2 cups flour, plus 2 tablespoons for the glaze
1/3 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for the glaze
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger, plus 1/8 teaspoon for the glaze
1 stick butter, cut into 8 pieces
¾ cup buttermilk, well shaken
1 quart ripe local strawberries, hull removed
2 tablespoons sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons very thinly sliced crystallized ginger, optional
The Whipped Cream:
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Make the shortcakes:
In a large bowl sift the flour, 1/3 cup sugar, baking soda, salt, and ½ teaspoon of the ginger. Add the butter and using your hands or a pastry cutter, lightly incorporate the butter into the flour mixture until the butter resembles coarse cornmeal.
In a small bowl whisk the egg with the buttermilk. Pour the buttermilk mixture on top of the flour mixture and stir well to incorporate.
Flour a work surface and place the dough on top. Very gently knead the dough and form it into a flattened out mound. Using your hands or a rolling pin, roll out the dough so it's ¾-inch thick; you don’t want it any thinner or the shortcakes won’t have enough thickness and will cook too quickly. Use a 3-inch glass or biscuit cutter to cut out 8 shortcakes. Place the shortcakes on a cookie sheet with a silicon mat or a piece of parchment paper.
Place the remaining 2 tablespoons buttermilk in a small bowl and place the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and the 1/8 teaspoon of ginger in another small bowl.
Bake on the middle shelf for 10 minutes. Remove and lightly brush the top of each shortcake with the buttermilk and sprinkle with the sugar mixture. Bake another 10 to 14 minutes, or until the shortcakes turn a pale golden brown and the edges are just starting to turn brown. Remove and cool.
Meanwhile, place the strawberries in a bowl and sprinkle with the 2 tablespoons of sugar. Let sit for at least an hour or until serving.
Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Add the sugar and vanilla and whip until the cream holds its shape.
To serve: use a serrated knife the cut the shortcakes in half horizontally. Place 1/8th of the strawberry mixture on the bottom half of the shortcake and top with a generous dollop of cream. Top with the other half; repeat with the remaining shortcakes, berries, and cream. Makes 8 shortcakes.