strawberries: 5 posts

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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Belgian Strawberry Capital and Russian Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam

My ideal weekend would be spent reading or watching my favorite movies, but since we moved to Belgium my routine has been completely upended. Our apartment is so tiny that even the most minimalist notions of privacy are compromised–this is further compounded by the transparent bathroom door. To escape our weird living situation we’re taking lots of weekend trips. Belgium is a small country, but its size belies its impressive diversity. The travel distances are ridiculously short, especially by American standards, and if you are here as a tourist, I highly recommend renting a car and seeing the country this way.

A couple of weeks ago we were once again on the road going south. Belgium is divided into two regions; the Dutch-speaking Flanders spread out to the north, and the French-speaking Wallonia to the south. The line that bisects the country at Brussels may be imaginary, but it’s easy enough to get your bearings. Once the street signs start appearing shorter you’ll know that you’re in French-speaking Wallonia. Dutch, like German, has a tendency to fuse several words together in a string that looks unpronounceable to me.

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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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10 Ideas to Enjoy Strawberries : From Main Course to Dessert

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Every year I anticipate the strawberry season with much impatience. I love the scent of strawberries, which is a combination of milky sweetness, caramel richness and apple blossom freshness. While for the first couple of weeks I am glad to enjoy the juicy berries with nothing much besides a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, as days go by and the berries get more plentiful, I devise new ways to enjoy this seasonal favorite. Admittedly, my perfumery experiments significantly influence my culinary adventures, such as when I worked to juxtapose strawberry notes with an orange blossom accord, which resulted in a fragrant wild strawberry (fraises des bois) effect. Or when I discovered that strawberry pairs beautifully with anise notes, producing an interesting warm and cool effect. Perfumery and gastronomy are tightly linked, after all. Below are some of my favorite ways to enjoy strawberries, inspired by both classical pairings as well as my own flavor-fragrance explorations.

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