fruit desserts: 4 posts

Pomegranate and Orange Blossom

Along with blood oranges, quince and yuzu, pomegranates make me anticipate winter. Their season starts in the autumn and continues even when our northern European lands enter the somber grey days of February. Most of the pomegranates in Belgium come from Turkey, but I’ve discovered that Spanish and Californian fruit has the best taste, a rich melange of sour, sweet and mildly tannic notes that calls to mind red wine and Cornelian cherries.

To select a good pomegranate, look for a glossy, heavy fruit that doesn’t have soft spots. Different varieties of pomegranates range from dark red to pale pink, so pick the richest colored fruit from the batch. Opening a pomegranate holds a sense of suspense–what will it hold inside its leathery skin? The moment when the orb breaks open to reveal the segments full of garnet beads is a small wonder. I’ve opened hundreds of pomegranates in my life, but this giddy delight never lessens.

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Strawberry Orange Blossom Compote

Methyl anthranilate probably doesn’t sound all that delicious to you, and if you were never friends with chemistry, it might seem downright scary. I promise not to give an organic chemistry lecture here, but please bear with me for a moment. Methyl anthranilate is both fascinating and mouthwatering–this molecule occurs naturally in some of the most fragrant fruit and flowers, from Concord grapes to orange blossom, from mandarins to gardenias. And also in tiny wild strawberries, fraises des bois.

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Also known as woodland strawberries (Fragaria Vesca L.), they are only as big as your pinkie nail, but their flavor is so intense that a fistful of berries will perfume an entire room. They smell of caramel, orange flowers and muscat. When you taste them for the first time, you realize that this is what every strawberry flavor tries to imitate.

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Rice Pudding with Strawberry Compote : Vanilla and Orange Blossom

Rice puddings have a bad rep. Bland, boring, cafeteria fare are some of the less than complimentary descriptors heaped on this humble dessert. But like most old-fashioned dishes, a homemade rice pudding is comfort food at its best–creamy, suave and  lusty. And when the canvas of rice and milk is painted with spices and fruit, it’s easy to make rice pudding into something elegant and even exotic.

As summer gathers her skirts to settle down into the balmy days of June, my desserts revolve more and more around fruit. These days they are heavily strawberry flavored–it’s the height of the berry season, after all. At first, we simply ate them out of hand. Then, we started embellishing strawberries with whipped cream, or better yet, with sour cream or crème fraîche. Recently I’ve been tempted time and again by rice pudding tarts, which are common at Belgian bakeries, and I decided to combine two of my favorite desserts into one.

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Rhubarb Strawberry Fool with Orange and Vanilla

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My first introduction to fool, a classical English dessert dating back to the 16th century, was through Elizabeth David’s wonderful book Summer Cooking. David’s characteristically laconic recipe could not have been more appealing. “ 1lb. of strawberries, 3 oz. sugar, 5oz. double cream. Sieve the hulled strawberries. Stir in the sugar. Add this purée gradually to the whipped cream, so that it is quite smooth. Turn into a shallow crystal or silver dish, and put in the refrigerator for several hours, if possible underneath the ice-trays, so that the fools gets as cold as possible without actually freezing. It is important to cover the bowl, or everything else in the refrigerator will smell of strawberries.”

I love the airy texture of the mousse, the strong fragrance of strawberries and the refreshing sensation on the palate. Although fool (or foole as it used to be spelled) is traditionally made with gooseberries, it offers nearly limitless opportunities for experimens with different fruit pairings. Cream, as any fat based substance, picks up the aroma molecules beautifully, and it provides an excellent canvas on which to paint with flavors.

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