with so many fruits in peak season by the Fourth of July, summery desserts almost make themselves.
Fruits are always a treat when eaten unadorned and out of hand, but they're also the perfect starting place for an impressive variety of pies, cakes, bars, tarts and crumbles.
"This is not the time to be mucking about with complicated recipes," says cookbook author Barbara Kafka. "I just want it simple so I can taste the fruit when it's at its best."
For the Fourth, Kafka likes a classic strawberry shortcake. She makes it special by layering classic shortcake biscuits with sponge cake, then whipped cream and strawberry filling inside and topping with more cream and whole berries.
The shortcake concept is both fuss-free and versatile, Kafka says. Almost any fruit can be substituted for the strawberries. For a truly extraordinary take on the idea, she suggests using sliced fresh figs.
Diana Henry, author of Pure Simple Cooking, also favors no fuss. For an elegant but easy dish, she hulls and quarters fresh strawberries, then douses them with enough Beaujolais (or pinot noir) wine to cover, plus a generous sprinkling of sugar. "Leave them to macerate for 30 minutes," she says, "and there you have it."
Rhubarb can be cooked down with strawberries and enough sugar to balance the tartness to create a fruit compote that is quintessentially summer.
Kafka uses this blend as a filling for pies and tarts and as the base for crumbles or cobblers. It's also wonderful on its own or spooned over ice cream or pound cake.
Roasted or grilled
Stone fruits are heading into high season now.
Henry says she adores roasted stone fruits. Her method is straightforward: Take peaches, apricots and plums, halve or quarter them (depending on size), then place them in a shallow baking dish. Dust liberally with sugar, add some red wine and cassis (the French black currant liqueur), then bake until the fruit is completely tender and caramelized.
"I am always amazed at how luscious and easy this dessert is," she says. "The heat really brings the best out of even substandard or unripe fruit, and the oven does all the work for you."
Similarly, grilling fruits caramelizes their sugars and intensifies flavors. Plus, it's a fun and easy dessert for backyard barbecues.
Brush the cut face of halved peaches or nectarines with melted butter or vegetable oil, then grill, cut-side down, over medium-high until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Turn the fruit over and, if you like, spoon some blueberry or blackberry preserves into the cavity of each, then continue grilling until the fruit is tender but not mushy, about 5 to 7 minutes longer.
These grilled stone fruits are delicious on their own and especially nice served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt.
Chill out with fruits
Frozen desserts are another crowd pleaser, and fresh fruits make a perfect base. Ice cream makers are relatively inexpensive and easy to use, but if you have a food processor it's even easier to make icy, fresh fruit sorbets.
The basic sorbet technique is simple. If using berries, they should be rinsed and frozen on trays until they are solid. Larger fruits should be peeled and cut into smaller pieces before being frozen so your food processor can puree them easily.
Place about 3 cups of frozen fruit and a cup of juice, or a blend of frozen juice concentrate and water, in the bowl of a food processor, then process until smooth. Serve it right away, or transfer to a plastic container and freeze to enjoy later.
For a creamy variation, instead of using juice, freeze a cup of low-fat yogurt or sour cream, then process it in with your sorbet. For a bit more decadence use frozen whipping cream.
Of course, if you have fruit that is absolutely exquisite, the simplest and often most enjoyable approach is to serve it on its own. For instance, Henry likes to fill a shallow bowl with ice cubes and serve really sweet ripe cherries on top.
"Cherries on ice," she says, "what could be better?"
Or for what Henry describes as an "utterly chic" and hassle-free dessert, give each guest a perfect peach, a sharp knife and a glass of cold muscat dessert wine. Let each diner peel a peach and slice it into the glass of wine. Leave the peach flesh to macerate for 10 minutes, then give out the spoons and watch them eat an elegant do-it-yourself treat.