My two favorite ways to serve fresh strawberries:
• Sliced and splashed with orange juice or Grand Marnier then spooned over pound cake, homemade or store-bought. I let the berries sit in the OJ or liqueur for about 30 minutes before serving, which releases more sugary juices. Sometimes, I garnish with whipped cream and lemon zest.
• Quartered and lightly splashed with good quality balsamic vinegar for a light after-dinner treat. The vinegar's deep tang dances beautifully with the sweet berries. I like this, too, as a topping for vanilla ice cream.
Both are simple preparations but fine enough for company meals and as ways to use up the Hillsborough County harvest, in stores and farmers' markets now. The epicenter of berry celebration begins Thursday at the annual Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, which continues through March 8.
Hillsborough is the state's No. 1 strawberry-growing county and Florida is the country's No. 2 strawberry producer behind California. Peak season for that state's crop is April-June, so our jump-start gives the nation a taste of spring before the snow melts.
Almost as delicious as the local berries are the prices. They are on sale everywhere and for $5 you can get nearly four pints, enough for several desserts, a fruit salad and plenty to nosh. It's worth it to stock up, especially when you come across good deals at one of Tampa Bay area's many farmers' markets or at Plant City stands, that much closer to the fields.
Freeze the berries now if you want a taste of Florida's best weather in the dog-days of summer. To freeze strawberries whole, remove stems, wash gently and drain thoroughly. Do not soak in water. Place berries in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze until solid, about 10 hours. Transfer to an airtight container or freezer bags with as much air removed as possible.
When thawed, they will be softer and more watery than fresh berries and not as good to eat out of hand. However, they are perfectly fine for baked goods, salads, syrups and beverages such as daiquiris or smoothies.
The recipes that accompany this story put strawberries to good use in a variety of sweet ways. If you aren't inclined to make cream puffs from scratch — though these are really simple and show-off worthy — the strawberry sauce is versatile enough to be draped over ice cream or pancakes.
Strawberry Muffins can be baked, cooled and frozen for an upcoming event or company breakfast. Make sure to wrap them well to keep air exposure to a minimum or they may get freezer burn.
Strawberry Margarita Fizz is a bubbly change from the ubiquitous berry daiquiri. The recipe calls for a stemmed glass to be rimmed with sugar and if you opt to do this, look for superfine sugar. The drink is not compromised if you leave this step out.
Last is the Banana Split Cake from The Cracker Kitchen, a new cookbook by Janis Owen, a writer in Newberry, west of Gainesville. It has everything we like in a potluck dessert recipe, mostly that it's in highly totable 9- by 13-inch pan, plus it requires no baking.
The lack of heat preserves the taste and shape of the strawberries, as if they just came from the field. Almost.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.
Florida Strawberry Festival
The 74th annual festival in Plant City, featuring big names in country music, runs Thursday through March 8. Weekday tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and younger. Some concerts cost extra. For more information, see Thursday's Weekend section or go to www.flstrawberryfestival.com.
Strawberry Margarita Fizz
Sugar for coating glass rims
1 1/2 cups softened strawberry ice cream
1/2 cup chopped strawberries plus whole strawberries for garnish
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) tequila, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1/3 cup chilled club soda
Limes slices for garnish
Rub rims of two chilled stemmed glasses with water and dip in sugar to coat them.
In a blender, blend ice cream, chopped strawberries, tequila and lime juice until smooth but still thick and pour into glasses. Add club soda and garnish with whole strawberries and lime slices.
Makes 2 drinks.
Banana Split Cake
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 large egg whites
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
6 bananas, peeled and halved lengthwise
1 (20-ounce) can (2 1/2 cups) crushed pineapple, drained
1 quart strawberries, hulled and halved
1 (16-ounce) tub whipped topping, thawed
1 cup chopped pecans
Mix together the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter and press over the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Beat the egg whites in a large mixer bowl until fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, and the softened butter and beat for 10 minutes, until that mixture is fluffy.
Spread the butter mixture over the crust. Top with the bananas in an even layer, then the pineapple, then the strawberries.
Spread the whipped topping over the fruit layers and sprinkle with the pecans.
Cover and chill for three hours or overnight.
Source: The Cracker Kitchen by Janis Owen (Scribner, 2009)
Strawberry Cream Puffs With Strawberry Sauce
3/4 cups water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
1 cup chilled whipping cream
1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon kirsch (clear cherry brandy)
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large strawberries, hulled
2 pints strawberries, hulled, divided use
3 tablespoons sugar
For cream puffs: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine water, butter, salt and sugar in heavy medium saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring to melt butter. Add flour; using wooden spoon, stir vigorously until mixture clumps together, forming ball. Stir 1 minute longer. Remove from heat. Transfer dough to medium bowl. Using electric mixer, add eggs one at time, beating until dough is smooth after each addition (dough will be slightly soft and shiny).
Using 1 rounded tablespoon dough for each cream puff, spoon dough onto prepared baking sheet, spacing about 2 inches apart and forming mounds about 3/4 inch to 1 inch high and 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Using moist fingertips, gently press tops of cream puffs to flatten any peaks. Bake until golden brown, about 37 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to rack; let cream puffs cool. (Can be made 4 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.)
For filling: Beat cream, 1 teaspoon sugar, kirsch and vanilla in medium bowl until stiff peaks form. Combine 6 strawberries and 2 tablespoons sugar in small bowl. Using fork, crush berries. Fold crushed strawberry mixture into cream.
For sauce: Puree 1 basket strawberries in processor. Transfer to bowl. Stir in sugar. Quarter remaining strawberries; add to sauce. Makes about 2 1/3 cups.
Cut top third off each cream puff. Place cream puff bottoms, cut side up, on plates. Spoon filling into bottoms, mounding slightly. Ladle sauce over, allowing sauce to spill onto plates. Top with cream puff tops. Dust with powdered sugar.
Makes 12 to 18 cream puffs, depending on size.
Source: Bon Appétit
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar, plus 6 teaspoons sugar, divided use
1 1/2 cups chopped strawberries
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1 cup of the sugar in medium bowl.
Toss in strawberries, set aside.
Beat together eggs, butter, milk and vanilla in small bowl.
Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients; stir until just combined.
Spoon batter into muffin tins lined with paper.
Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon sugar on top of each muffin.
Bake 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in middle of muffin comes out clean.