Well. No bravery needed here—strawberries are at the market! Several vendors were selling these favorite summer treats last week and will continue to do so for a few weeks to come, I’m sure. If you are a true locavore, you know how precious this short crimson season truly is. It’s a lot like tomatoes: while it is possible to get strawberries all year round in the United States, nothing will compare to a market-fresh strawberry. Remember, too, that berries freeze, if handled with care, so you can have your strawberries and eat your shortcake, too, so to speak.
The Family Garden and Biver Farms both had strawberries, so I picked up some while getting my weekly dozen eggs and leafy greens. And, last week I made new friends when I purchased additional strawberries at McConauchie’s Manor Farm. What a lovely family. As with most vendors at the market, the McConauchie’s are committed to sustainable farming, responsible in their use of any (if any) chemicals and full of pride for both their products and their connection to the land.
One of my culinary heroes is Vivian Howard, head chef at Chef and the Farmer restaurant in North Carolina and PBS superstar of A Chef’s Life. Chef Howard is as real as they come, in my opinion. Totally authentic and committed to local, seasonal cooking. Ever since I saw her PBS episode on strawberries and baking her twins’ first birthday cakes, I have been in love with the idea of marrying cornmeal and strawberries. I love homemade cornbread in my big cast iron skillet topped with fresh strawberry jam, for instance, or polenta made with butter, milk and honey and topped with fresh strawberries. But my all-time favorite cornmeal-strawberry dish is a cornmeal and buttermilk layer cake iced with fresh strawberry frosting. While my recipe is nowhere near as complex and elegant as Chef Howard’s, it’s still yummy—see if you agree!
- One and three-quarters cup flour (I used organic whole wheat pastry flour. Organic spelt flour would be another good choice.)
- One-third cup fine-ground organic cornmeal
- One teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
- One-half teaspoon aluminum-free baking soda
- One teaspoon fine sea salt
- One cup sugar (I used organic raw sugar. Coconut sugar might be another idea. My favorite resource for organic sugar is Wholesome Sweeteners.)
- One-half cup packed organic light brown sugar
- Eight tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- One cup organic buttermilk (Organic can be hard to find, BTW.)
- One teaspoon vanilla
- Four large eggs
- One cup unsalted butter, softened (two sticks)
- Three and a half to four cups confectioner’s sugar
- About a quarter cup fresh strawberry sauce (See the first preparation step below.)
- One tablespoon vanilla
- Two tablespoons heavy cream
- Pinch of sea salt
- Extra strawberries—your prettiest of the bunch--for garnish
- I like to do this a little ahead—maybe by a day—so that the strawberry flavor has time to deepen. You will have more than enough sauce for the icing, but is that really a problem?
- Wash, hull and air dry one pint of strawberries. Place the strawberries in a blender with three to four tablespoons of sugar—depending on how ripe and naturally sweet your berries are. Add one tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and puree until smooth.
- The sauce will keep for up to three days in your refrigerator… well, theoretically.
- Have all cake ingredients at room temperature and preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
- Coat two eight-inch round pans with cooking spray or butter. (Butter is nice here.)
- In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugars.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the butter, buttermilk, vanilla and eggs. Combine thoroughly.
- Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until smooth.
- Divide the batter between the two pans, give them a little wack on the counter to rid them of air bubbles and place in the pre-heated oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Finished layers should begin to pull from the sides of the pan and be firm to the touch. Test with a toothpick in the center, which should come out clean.
- Cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then turn out on wire cooling racks. Cool completely before frosting.
- Cream the soften butter in the bowl of your electric mixer. Alternating, add one-half cup of the confectioner’s sugar and one tablespoon of strawberry sauce, beginning and ending with confectioner’s sugar to be sure you get a good smooth consistency that isn’t too runny.
- Add the vanilla and beat on high for 20-30 seconds.
- Add in your cream, one tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition. Your frosting should be holding its shape and coming to a spreadable consistency at this point. Add your pinch of salt and whip on high for a final 20-30 seconds.
- Your frosting is ready to use or you can store it in the frig for up to three days. However, refrigerated frosting must be returned to room temperature and re-beaten a bit to bring it back to spreadable consistency.
- Place one cake layer on your serving dish on top of some sheets of wax paper that you will eventually pull out from under the cake once it is frosted (keeps your plate pretty and clean). Frost the top of the first layer and top it with the second layer.
- Frost the sides of the cake and then the top. Begin with what is called a “crumb coat,” that is a thin first coat of frosting that will pick up loose crumbs. Now go back over the sides and top with a second, thicker coat that should be crumb-free.
- Pull out your waxed paper and decorate with your extra berries. For the sides, I sliced my biggest, prettiest berries in half and stuck them along the bottom of the cake. Pretty easy. In the center, I constructed a strawberry “flower” by placing slices of strawberries in a circle and adding one whole berry to the center.
The prep time includes the approximate time it takes to make the cake batter, make the frosting and assemble the cake. It does not include the time it takes for the layers to cool, which usually takes about two hours minimum.
No time to bake? No problem. The best part about fresh market berries is that you really don’t need to do anything but gently wash and eat. However, if you did want to do something special but had very little time, you could be a little daring and macerate these berries in sugar and balsamic vinegar for an elegant, fresh dessert. That’s what I did the other night.
I was just itching to try another one of those wonderful treats from Monadock Oil & Vinegar Co. that my friend Mary Lynn brought back from her New Hampshire trip—especially a white balsamic vinegar flavored with honey and ginger. It screamed strawberries. If you have never been brave enough to put strawberries and balsamic vinegar together, perhaps now is the time. I particularly like white balsamic for this purpose because it will not affect the glorious red of the berries. But dark balsamic will work well, too. Just be sure your strawberries are top quality and completely ripe (like not going to last another day) and that your vinegar is also top notch. Now is not the time to pinch pennies. This recipe is inspired by Jack Bishop’s version in The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook:
Macerated Strawberries in White Balsamic Vinegar
- One or two pints ripe organic strawberries, washed, hulled and air-dried
- Two to three tablespoons sugar (I prefer raw organic sugar.)
- One tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
Place your berries in a pretty bowl and toss with the sugar. Let them stand at room temperature while you eat your dinner—about a half hour. Add the tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and toss just before serving. Yum. These can also top vanilla ice cream for a special evening. Um… extra special evening? Add a glass of very nice champagne. Yum, yum.
Just a note here about the comparative cost of fresh, organic market berries and the big sales you’ll find on conventional, mass-produced berries at the grocery stores this time of year. Not to be preachy, but… While you’ll probably pay quite a bit more for those market berries, there is a huge difference besides the price tag. Conventionally grown strawberries topped the list of dirty produce in the annual study published by The Environmental Working Group. We all must make our own decisions, but we can’t do that well unless we are informed. So, I hope you’ll take a quick look.