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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Berry Sweet

It's a little late for berry season (silly weather!), but it is, oh, so good.  On some mornings in the northwest it makes more sense to eat a little cereal with my berries than a few berries with my cereal.  Yum.  I have had strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries.  I have eaten them fresh, made jam and preserves, and am now baking of them.

Yesterday I looked around for a recipe for a strawberry cake.  This is in part due to the bad recipe for strawberry muffins I tried last year which resulted in damp, soggy and too salty muffins.  And I found a recipe that with a little tinkering is just about perfect and really nicely versatile, because it doesn't depend on the moisture of the berries to keep the cake moist.  The berries are sort of a garnish, which means much can be done with it.  A friend today remarked that it looked like an upside down cake--and I guess it does, but it isn't "flipped."

So, I baked it up with the last pound of the berries I picked at Knapp's and am planning on whipping up some variations soon.  It's easy and simple, too.  I have decided that this is the kind of cake I like--forget the fussy and complicated.  I want a cake (and food generally) to show off its perfect ingredients, instead of covering up blander or tired ingredients.

Covering up ingredients or getting too fussy is all too common now.  No wonder so many of us have forgotten what a really sweet strawberry or a garden-ripe tomato (forget that "vine-ripened" stuff that still tastes pretty bland but has the stem still on it) tastes like.  Cooking should show off the ingredients and only in doing so show off the skill of the cook.  If the ingredients are good, even an average cook becomes genius--and can take credit for a little bit of what nature has already done.

On to it, then.

Rustic Strawberry Cake
6 tablespoons butter (plus for greasing pan)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup milk

2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound strawberries, hulled and halved

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch pie plate. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl.

Put butter and 1 cup sugar in medium bowl, mix on medium high speed of electric mixer until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. reduce speed to medium-low; mix in egg, milk and vanilla.

Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in flour mixture. Transfer batter to buttered pie plate. Arrange strawberries on top of batter cut side down and as close together as possible. Sprinke remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar over berries.
Bake cake 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 325 degrees. Bake until cake is golden brown and firm to the touch, about 1 hour. Let cool in pie plate on a wire rack. Cut into wedges.

Great with ice cream or whipped cream.


Use almond extract with strawberries and add 1/2 cup slivered almonds to batter.

Use raspberries instead of strawberries.

Use blueberries and add zest of one lemon to batter.

Use diced apple and add 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon to the batter.

Use your imagination!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Don't Be So Fresh!

"Fresh."  Back when I was a child being fresh was not a good thing.  When we had been rude, mean or sassy, my Mom called it "being fresh."  I know I am not alone in having this term have a derogatory meaning in my personal history.

But there are some things that we expect to be fresh and that is a good thing--produce is high on the list.  Last week I returned home after visiting my family on the East Coast for two weeks.  I came home to a refrigerator containing mostly condiments and a couple of single serving sized containers of yogurt.  I was so tired from my early flight that I had something from the freezer for dinner and went to bed at 8:00.

But, Tuesday rolled around and I had to go to the grocery store.  And, what's worse, I knew I would be going to the farmers market the very next day.  But I did have to buy some produce, so I decided to "treat" myself and got a small package of organic grape tomatoes.  It's been a cold spring and though the summer is warming up, I don't expect to see a tomato at the farmers market for a while.  Even when I was back east, my father's tomato plants just had a few green ones on them--I should have known better.

These tomatoes are wildly disappointing.  They are underripe, and yet some of them are going soft.  I am eating them only because I hate waste more.  I think by tomorrow I will have finished off the little box of them.

But for me, it is just a good reminder that what is fresh is best when it comes to produce and I have gotten accustomed to very, VERY, fresh--picked just a day or so before.  So while "don't be so fresh" was an admonition of my youth, it's not something I'll ever say to a farmer!

This was not the treat I thought I was giving myself, but a lesson about seasonality.  I'll wait patiently for tomatoes from now on.

Friday, July 15, 2011

We Be Jammin'

I just got back from two weeks on the east coast visiting family.  It's the break between the end of summer school and the beginning of my first sabbatical.  And I am taking this week off, too (with the exception of a department meeting today).  It's amazing what changes two weeks in the peak of farmers market season brings.  When I hit it on Wednesday there were so many different things that hadn't been available when I left--apricots and green beans to name a few.  And we now, even though it is late, have berries in full force.  In fact the day after I got back from the east coast I went strawberry picking at Knapp's up at Green Bluff.  I picked 11 pounds in 45 minutes.  It's a bargain at 99 cents a pound (if you buy a pre-picked ten pound flat it is still a good price at $25).

My intention with these strawberries was to learn to can.  I have wanted to for a while and with the encouragement of friends and the gifts from other friends (one college friend gave me canning equipment for Christmas and another a beautiful canning cookbook--I am indeed lucky).

the first four jars cooling
So, with OCD-like compulsion I read the instructions on making strawberry jam.  My goal was to make jam and have all the jars seal--I really don't want to kill anyone.  I approached this with the same trepidation as I had learning to drive (I remember saying to my driver's ed instructor, "but this is a lethal weapon" referring to the sedan I was getting into).  I read the instructions in all three canning cookbooks I had, those than came with the water bath canner, those that came with the canning equipment, the jars and the pectin.  I even read the basic instructions on the USDA webpage.  I really, really don't want to kill anyone.  So I was really happy when those first four jars sealed properly with the satisfying "pop, pop, pop."

It actually took a lot less time than I imagined and was easier than I expected.  I was so enthralled with those first four jars I started on another recipe using more of those strawberries.  I am now the proud owner of 4 jars of strawberry jam and 6 of strawberry lemon preserves.  I can't wait to do more and to move from jams to pickles and then on to the reason I wanted to learn to can in the first place--tomatoes!

Making Jam

washing the jars
Making strawberry jam really is pretty easy once you overcome the fear of giving someone botulism from the canning process.  It has just three ingredients--strawberries, sugar and pectin.

sterilizing the jars
It takes more work to prepare the jars and boil the water for the canner than it does to prepare the berries and boil off some of the liquid.  Strawberries are high enough in acid content not to need added acid in the jam mixture to make it work safely, too.
mashing the berries

But washing the jars and mashing the berries was all in the service of this beautiful jam.

Strawberry Lemon Preserves

strawberries and lemon--a favorite combo!
My second recipe was just a variation on the first--now strawberry lemon preserves instead of strawberry jam.  The recipe called for macerating the strawberries and lemon slices in sugar overnight.  It is luscious and delicious.  This is one that I already have a friend who has requested a jar!  It is good, sweet and tangy, a little bit different and I think will make a good gift!

I am so pleased that my first few canning attempts appear to have worked well.  And with new confidence I am already planning more things to try--I am a canning fiend.