Jan 29, 2024

Ways to make strawberries even tastier

Wed., June 7, 2023

Strawberry desserts in New York, on May 18, 2023. What better way to celebrate strawberries than by baking them into berry-laden desserts? (CHRISTOPHER TESTANI/New York Times)

Last winter was a terrible time to be a strawberry in California – and maybe an even worse time to be a strawberry farmer.

At Harry's Berries in Oxnard, California, the rain came down so hard it flattened acres of strawberry beds "like pancakes," said operations manager Kristopher Gean, whose grandfather Harry Iwamoto started the farm more than 50 years ago. Each bed had to be dug up by hand, costing the farm more than $100,000 in labor.

Even then, the berries that survived to make it to market were bloated, insipid and expensive. "Everyone on Instagram was complaining: ‘These berries don't taste that good,’ " Gean said. "And they were right."

From January to March, bad weather and bland berries were the rule for farmers across California, who grow about 85% of the commercial strawberries in the United States. And the devastated crops, with their low yields, astronomically drove up prices for any berries you could find.

Things have finally turned around: California berries are back on the market, sweet as ever, and at a more reasonable cost. Strawberries from other regions are also becoming available as the weather warms, making their scarlet way to farmers markets and supermarkets across the country.

And what better way to celebrate their return than with a berry-laden dessert?

While many strawberry-filled baked goods get a little soggy from the raw berries weeping moisture into the crumb or crust, these three new recipes are different. They treat the berries before baking – simmering, roasting or macerating them – to condense their juices and allow them to hold up better in pastries and cakes.

An elegant, flaky tart simmers the strawberries briefly in a sugar syrup until they glisten like rubies. Then, they’re arranged on top of a tangy cream cheese mixture spread on a sheet of puff pastry. The tart emerges from the oven with a crisp, buttery crust that stays that way for hours, perfect for making ahead.

Macerating the berries in sugar before baking them into biscuits prevents them from becoming gummy. Then, you can sandwich those biscuits around more macerated berries and whipped cream for the fruitiest, juiciest double strawberry shortcakes imaginable, with poppy seeds for extra crunch.

Last but not least, in the tender almond cakes, rich with browned butter, berries are briefly roasted before being mixed into the batter, for an intense flavor and caramelized juices that lend a jammy vividness.

These techniques will help any berries show their best, and they’re also great to keep in your back pocket for next winter, in case bad weather and bland berries return.

But right now, this year's berries are ripe and ready for all your baking and beyond.

These tender, strawberry-filled almond cakes are a riff on financiers, diminutive French pastries made from almond flour and browned butter. To get the most intensity from the berries, they are briefly roasted before being mixed into the batter. Roasting condenses the berries’ flavor and helps keep them from leaking juices into the cakes, which can make their light crumb heavy and a bit damp. Serve these cakes by themselves as a simple dessert or teatime snack, or with a scoop of strawberry ice cream or sorbet for something richer and fancier. Although they’re at their crisp-edged best served on the day they’re baked, they’ll keep for a day or two stored airtight at room temperature.

7 ounces (200 grams) fresh strawberries, cut into 1/2-inch chunks (about 11/2 cups)

1 tablespoon granulated sugar, plus more for the pan

3/4 cup (170 grams) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

2 cups (230 grams) confectioners’ sugar

1 cup (100 grams) almond flour

3/4 cup (90 grams) all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt

5 large egg whites

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a small bowl, mix strawberries with 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar and transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast until the strawberries have released a bit of juice and are just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a small saucepan, melt butter, letting it cook until it turns nut brown and smells toasted, about 5 minutes. Pour into a heatproof bowl and let cool. (Do not scrape up any black bits from the bottom of the pot.)

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine sugar, almond flour, all-purpose flour and salt. Using an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and set on low speed (or use a whisk and a strong arm), beat in egg whites until the flour mixture is damp. Add butter and beat on medium-high speed (or vigorously by hand) until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Beat in vanilla. At this point, the batter can be used immediately or refrigerated for up to 4 days without the strawberries.

Right before baking, drain the roasted strawberries from their liquid and blot on a paper towel or clean cloth. Fold the roasted strawberries into the batter. (You may have about 1 to 2 tablespoons of strawberry syrup left to add to yogurt or seltzer.)

Butter 12 (1/2-cup) muffin cups and coat all over with a little granulated sugar. Divide batter across the cups, and bake until financiers are golden brown and the tops spring back when lightly pressed, 15 to 25 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before unmolding.

Makes 12 cakes.

Strawberry Cream

Briefly simmering fresh strawberries in a light sugar syrup before baking them into a tart keeps the berries plump and juicy and the crust from becoming soggy. Here, the syrupy berries are layered with a cream cheese filling and baked on a sheet of store-bought puff pastry, which turns golden and flaky in the oven. Quick to put together and elegant to serve, it's a terrific way to showcase the fresh berries.

For the berries:

11/2 pounds fresh strawberries, trimmed and halved or quartered if very large

1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt

For the tart:

1/2 cup (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon fine sea or table salt

All-purpose flour, for rolling

1 (14- to 18-ounce) package puff pastry, preferably all-butter, thawed if frozen but still cold

Heat oven to 425 degrees. In a medium saucepan, combine strawberries, sugar and salt. Let mixture sit for 20 minutes, tossing once or twice, until the berries get a little juicy. Turn the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are just beginning to soften and the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer berries to a plate to cool. Bring the syrup back to a simmer and let it cook until it reduces by half, 3 to 7 minutes.

In a medium bowl, use a fork or a wooden spoon to mash together the cream cheese, egg yolk, sugar, lemon juice and zest, vanilla and salt until smooth. (It's OK if there are a few small lumps of cream cheese.)

On a lightly floured surface, roll puff pastry into a 13-by-11-inch rectangle about 1/8-inch thick. Transfer the dough to a parchment-lined baking pan. With a sharp knife, score a 1-inch border along the edges of the puff pastry (don't cut all the way through).

Spread the cream cheese mixture evenly inside the scored border. Arrange the strawberries on top in a single layer. (If they don't all fit nicely, save the remaining berries for snacking.)

Bake until the pastry is puffed and golden, 22 to 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool for at least 20 minutes or up to 8 hours before serving. Right before serving, gently brush some of the reduced syrup over the fruit and crust to add shine and more strawberry flavor. If you like, you can serve the remaining syrup as a sauce drizzled on top of the tart, or save it to use in seltzer or serve over yogurt or ice cream.

Serves 6 to 8.

With fresh berries in both the filling and the biscuits, these strawberry shortcakes double up on the fruit, making them especially juicy. To keep the shortcakes from turning soggy, the berries are briefly macerated before baking, which keeps them from weeping into the pastry. Poppy seeds add a slight nutty crunch, but you can leave them out if you prefer. Bake the shortcakes up to eight hours ahead, but, for the best texture, don't layer them with the cream and berries until serving.

For the shortcakes:

4 ounces (1 cup) fresh strawberries, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick

4 tablespoons (50 grams) granulated sugar

13/4 cups (230 grams) all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons baking powder

1 tablespoon poppy seeds, plus more for topping

1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, cubed

Buttermilk, as needed

For serving:

8 ounces (2 cups) fresh strawberries, trimmed and sliced

1 to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

For the whipped cream, in a small bowl, macerate the berries: Gently toss the strawberries with 1 tablespoon sugar and set aside for 30 minutes or until the berries are juicy and bright red.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, remaining 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, baking powder and poppy seeds. Add butter. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, work the butter into the flour until the mixture is mealy with pea-size butter pieces. While the strawberries macerate, put the flour and butter mixture in the freezer to chill.

After the strawberries have released their liquid, use a slotted spoon to carefully transfer them to a clean kitchen towel or paper towel, and dab off any excess liquid. Pour strawberry liquid into a measuring cup and add enough buttermilk to make 1/3 cup.

Add the drained strawberries to the chilled flour mixture and toss with your fingers or a fork to incorporate.

Pour in buttermilk mixture and gently toss until the dough is evenly damp and shaggy, being careful not to overmix. Turn the shaggy dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and pat it into a rough 5-by-4-inch rectangle that's 11/2 inches tall (it will look small, but will rise a lot in the oven). Cut through the dough into 6 even pieces but don't separate the shortcakes. (This makes them easier to store.) Wrap well with plastic and place in the freezer for at least 45 minutes and up to 2 weeks.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Remove dough from the freezer. Use a knife to separate the shortcakes (you may have to cut all the way through the dough again) and place on a lined baking tray at least 11/2 inches apart. Brush tops with buttermilk and sprinkle with more poppy seeds.

Put the shortcakes in the oven and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Bake for 22 to 30 minutes until the shortcakes are golden brown on the tops and bottoms. Transfer to a rack to cool.

To serve, in a medium bowl, toss together berries and sugar and let macerate for at least 15 minutes and up to 4 hours (store in the fridge if keeping longer than an hour). Halve the shortcakes crosswise, and fill with whipped cream and syrupy berries.

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