Strawberries

Every spring, people begin waxing poetic about strawberries.  Tiny, perfect, juicy wild strawberries.  Up until now, I didn’t really get it.  Pretty much every time I get strawberries at the store they’re the same – big, very red, a little lumpy, pretty sweet but nothing to write home about, with about 20% too overripe to enjoy.  Just regular old strawberries.  Then, my mother brought these beautiful berries home from Mann Orchards, the 130 year old local farmstand and orchard (that, for me, is synonymous with absolutely perfect apple pie), and I got it.  These berries are beautiful.  They’re tiny.  They’re incredibly sweet.  Every single one was perfectly red all the way through.  They are deserving of starring in a very special dessert.  Which I’ll tell you about soon.  After I talk about strawberries some more.

More strawberries: I am on a mission to salvage the strawberries in our own, struggling orchard.  It was sort of a nice surprise when I came home and was reminded of all the things already growing at our house in Andover, especially after the trauma of leaving behind my well-loved shoebox garden in Durham.  Sure, the Andover garden is hiding under loads of weeds and none of the trees in the orchard have ever produced a piece of fruit that wasn’t munched by deer, but with my new-found farming inspiration and my father’s instruction, I’ve been slowly loving the garden back to a more attractive state.  The zucchini are planted, the cilantro survived my rather rough transplanting process, and the dill seems to have recovered from losing all the weeds that were holding it up.  The strawberries, however, are a bit of a battle, seeing as how they’re planted up in the orchard way behind the house, where each new strawberry is eaten just before it’s ready, and I cry a little when I go up to check them and they’re all gone.  The current solution is to place a sawed-off soda bottle over each bunch of green berries to protect them.  I don’t know when I got so good at loving plants, but I really love them.  Maybe it’s the absence of children under the age of 5 in my life these past two years – now I have excess love for small things.

Back to dessert.  These strawberries were begging not to be mashed, macerated, stewed, or otherwise transformed.  They were very vain. They wanted to stay whole.  And who am I to mush up something so naturally beautiful?  So I decided to make a tart, one of the pretty kinds you see in pastry shop windows with magically perfect fruit arranged on the top that cost twice as much as you’re willing to spend, but you buy them anyways.  And then the pastry cream is always a little too thick and flavorless and the crust is soggy and you’re disappointed, unless of course you’re in Paris in which case your tart is undoubtedly perfect… but I digress.  I wanted to make a tart equally as pretty as the pastry shop ones, but also delicious.  I had had a recipe for a strawberry almond cream tart for over a year, but upon closer inspection (it’s the Cooking Light one that you’ll find all over the web) I decided it was a little too pre-packaged for me, with the graham cracker crust and cream cheese filling.  Still, I loved the sound of the flavor combinations, so I took the idea my own route, baked a shortbread crust, filled it with almond pastry cream, and topped it with the berries as well as a strawberry-orange glaze.  Success!  Pretty, delicious, strawberry-y.  And, happily, the day the strawberries were really needing to be used happened to coincide with Father’s Day, so I got to dedicate and share this lovely treat to my papa.  Happy Dadhood to you!  And to all father’s everywhere; we (your children) love you.

Strawberry Almond Cream Tart

Serves 8.  Pastry cream recipe from The New Best Recipe.

  • 1 qt. strawberries, washed, hulled, and sliced lengthwise
  • 1 1/4 c. flour
  • 10 TBS butter, room temperature
  • 1/3 c. powdered sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 c. half and half
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 3 TBS cornstarch
  • 4 TBS cold butter
  • 1 1/2 tsp. almond extract
  • 1/2 c. strawberry jelly
  • 1 TBS water
  • 1/2 TBS orange liquer
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.  Butter and flour a 9 inch tart pan.  In a large bowl, mix together flour, 1/4 tsp. salt and powdered sugar.  Cut in room temperature butter.  Mix together with a pastry cutter or the back of a fork until dough sticks together in pea sized crumbles.  Press dough evenly into tart pan, pushing up around the edges to form sides.  Poke the bottom of the crust several times with a fork, to keep dough from bubbling.  Bake 15 minutes, until just turning golden brown.  Remove from oven and allow to cool.
  2. In a medium sized saucepan, bring half and half, pinch of salt and 6 TBS of the sugar to a full simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.  In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks and remaining 2 TBS sugar until dissolved.  Whisk in cornstarch until the mixture is pale yellow and slightly thickened.
  3. When half and half comes to a simmer, slowly pour into the egg yolk mixture, vigorously whisking the egg yolks all the while, to temper the yolks.  Pour custard back into pan, and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened and just beginning to bubble, about 2 minutes.  Remove from heat, stir in almond extract, and cut in chilled butter, stirring until it melts.  Strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean bowl, and allow to cool to room temp.  Press a piece of plastic wrap tightly against the surface of the custard and refrigerate until well chilled, about  2 hours.
  4. Use a spatula to spoon the chilled custard into the tart crust and smooth evenly across the surface.  Decorate with sliced strawberries.  Bring the jelly, 1 TBS water, and liquer to a boil, then gently spoon over fruit to create a glaze.  Chill tart until ready to serve.  Best served soon after being assembled.
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