In the 1800s, when the first strawberries (or cherries, raspberries or melons) of the season were ripe, families and friends gathered to share the fruit together. Their diary entries read, “Cousin so and so and friends here to eat strawberries.” Imagine the intense pleasure they experienced biting into new, freshly-picked berries, or spooning them with cream and sugar out of a dish — the first taste of fresh berry in perhaps a year. Even though early cooks made strawberry preserves to extend the berry’s use into fall and winter, there was nothing to bring the fresh flavor to table anytime else than late June or early July.
Even now, though I can buy strawberries in January, the berry I picked last week in the garden, still warm from the sun, mashed against the roof of my mouth, was its own special occasion. Red through and through, slightly soft and full of sweet-tart flavor. You can’t beat it.
A few years ago I attended a conference for food professionals. A California-based strawberry producer set up a display of three different sorts of those huge, fist-sized strawberries with the white interiors, the kind that go thump and bounce if you drop them on the floor (when a real, ripe berry might land soft and splat). They invited the food professionals to rate the three sorts for flavor, appearance and more. Many did, chewing thoughtfully and making little marks on the cards. In my opinion, every one of the berries was awful. The strawberry flavor was faint and the berries were dry. It did not seem to occur to any of the tasters to point that out to the growers. I wondered then if any of them had ever picked and eaten a truly fresh berry right off a plant or a mere few hours later at a farm stand. Maybe they didn’t know what a strawberry could be.
I don’t eat fresh strawberries out of season. It seems pointless. I wait until late June and early July, though now because I grow a variety called Seascape that will bear all summer long, I get to enjoy fresh berries into September. What luxury. I will freeze some (hulled, whole, spread on cookie sheets, popped into the freezer, and knocked off frozen into zip-closed freezer bags) and I will make jam.
The recipe that follows for a strawberry fool works with fresh or frozen berries. This is actually a very old dish; some fool recipes are 300 years old. Essentially, it is cooked or pureed soft fruits folded into beaten and sweetened cream or custard. Usually I use only sweet whipped cream. You can add more berry puree if you want as long as the cream will absorb it without separating.
If you want to avoid fat, you can replace the whipped cream with thick yogurt instead, or a combination of thick yogurt and low-fat sour cream.
I prefer raw sugar for the strawberries but use plain white for the whipped cream part. In past times, a fool might have been lightly spiced and a bit of nutmeg or mere shake of cinnamon is very pleasant. Use a bit of vanilla extract in the whipped cream. Most of all, suit your own taste. If the berries are very tart, use more sugar. If they are dead ripe, perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice will sharpen them up a bit. If you have a sweet tooth, add more sugar to the whipped cream.
Makes three servings
1 pint strawberries
A sprinkle sugar
A grating nutmeg (optional)
1 cup whipping or heavy cream (or thick yogurt, sour cream)
¼ cup sugar (more or less to taste)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch off the green hulls and slice the berries into a bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and optional spices and let stand a few minutes or longer until the juices run. When you are ready to assemble the dish, whip the cream with sugar adding vanilla when the cream begins to thicken. Spoon about half the strawberries into a food processor and puree them (or mash well with a masher or the back of the spoon against the side of the bowl). Add the result back to the remaining berries and mix well. Fold that mixture into the whipped cream blending very well. Serve immediately or put into the fridge until you are ready to serve.