We wait eagerly for them to be in season, dreaming of their just-picked ripeness, burst of flavor and flush of their juices in our mouths. At first we want their simple elegance of taste and texture. But within a few days, we want more, a complexity of sensation and the visual. We want a simple dessert to assemble, but with a big bang on the table pleasing guests and family alike.
The easiest solution is utilizing herbs, spices or a dash of this or that if “a little something” will do the trick. In and of themselves, berries are eye candy, but a little experimentation can change the presentation to dazzling. Wine glasses or goblets, small crystal or other bowls (mine come from yard sales) cradle berries very happily. They need not match each other or their sauce.
It’s justifiably important to taste a few berries before proceeding. If they need sweetening, toss carefully in confectioners' sugar.
Sauces, however, can make all the difference. I love the sensuality of sauces spooned on berries, the way they cling to the berries, but sauces can be used for dipping as well. Strawberries and chocolate sauce have a real affection, as do blueberries and lemon curd. Sliced strawberries can be immersed in a plain sugar syrup, or the sugar syrup that has been turned into a caramel sauce. Or a gingered caramel sauce.
Lemon curd is one of those sauces that can last in the refrigerator for what seems indefinitely. It can be used by itself or mixed with whipped cream shortly before serving with raspberries, blackberries, blueberries or strawberries.
Creme Anglaise, like lemon curd, doesn’t really know a stranger in the berry family. It has many derivations, which follow the recipe. It can vary in thickness depending on the amount of milk added. Like all custards, temperature is crucial: Not enough heat, it won’t thicken and go anywhere; too hot and it will separate.
Dashes of this or that:
- Sprinkled confectioners' sugar
- Finely chopped mint or lemon balm, thyme or lavender.
- Grated or shaved chocolate, milk or semisweet for strawberries and raspberries, white chocolate for blackberries and blueberries.
- Finely chopped candied ginger, candied orange or lemon rind, grated lemon rind, orange rind, or other citrus fruit.
- Flavored sugar, such a raspberry or butterscotch sugar, can be made or purchased at gourmet stores.
A little more effort is required for the following:
- Heavy whipping cream, whipped and sweetened, with vanilla or another flavor
- Mascarpone cheese by itself or mixed with whipped cream; cream cheese softened with whipped cream and maybe a little confectioners sugar.
- Yogurt, if necessary slightly sweetened, or a flavored yogurt like vanilla, lemon, banana, orange or caramel
- Balsamic vinegar: A few drops of well-aged balsamic vinegar will perk up strawberries
- Liquors and aperitifs: Orange liquors, limoncello, sweet sherry, Tia Maria, Frangelica, Chambord, brandies, flavored brandies can pep up berries but they don’t add much visual pizzazz
Soft Stirred Custard (Creme Anglaise)
Makes 2-3 cups
Custards are a combination of liquid such as milk or cream and eggs. There are two kinds: stovetop (stirred) and baked. This very basic light custard sauce becomes ice cream when frozen; with the addition of gelatin, it's a bavarois; with chocolate, it's a chocolate sauce; and with butter, it's a rich butter cream. The English were famous for their boiled custards; hence, the French named this dish Creme Anglaise. Vanilla bean truly enhances this, but use what’s available, and see the variations below.
For a sauce that will thickly coat the back of a spoon, use 1-1/2 cups of milk and increase the cream to 1/3 or 1/2 cup. To make thinner, add more liquid, either milk or cream.
1 vanilla bean (optional)
1 to 2 1/2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup well-chilled heavy cream (optional)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (optional)
Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean, add bean and seeds to 1-1/2 cups of the milk, and heat until small bubbles form at the edges of the pan. Rinse the bean pod and reserve for another purpose.
Whisk the yolks in a heavy pan, add the sugar and whisk until thick.
Slowly beat the hot milk into the yolk mixture. Turn on the heat under the pan and cook for a few minutes over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture coats a metal spoon like a sheer fabric, about 160 to 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Don't overcook or the eggs will be scrambled. Immediately pour through a fine strainer into another bowl over ice if concerned about cooling it down rapidly. Add the vanilla extract, if using, instead of the vanilla bean. For a thinner sauce, add the remaining cup of milk and/or cream. Refrigerate, covered, with plastic wrap.
- Flavor with orange liqueur, Madeira, sherry or other liquid.
- Substitute cinnamon stick, cardamom pods or other spices for the vanilla bean.
To strain a custard:
Not all egg dishes need straining, but “boiled” custards have two reasons for doing so: 1. removing the chalazae, the “stringy” part of the egg whites, and 2. the possibility of some overcooked eggs lurking on the bottom and sides of the pan. Straining cools down the custard as well as removing the less desirable bits and the bean pod.
This is a foolproof chocolate sauce. Of course, if a better chocolate is available or bitter chocolate is preferred, it can be substituted.
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 heaping tablespoons semisweet chocolate chips
Heat the cream in a heavy pan or in the microwave until hot but not boiling. When hot, add the chocolate and continue to cook over low heat until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Serve hot or set aside until needed. It will keep in the refrigerator several weeks, covered. Reheat over low heat or in the microwave if necessary.
Lemon Curd (Lemon Cheese)
Makes 2-1/2 cups
This recipe emerges in old and modern French, English and Southern recipes. Thomas Jefferson and Martha Washington’s recipe collections show its use as well. The curd itself is delicious as a filling for cakes, meringues, tarts and pies.
Like mayonnaise, it will last a long time in the refrigerator when it has a high degree of acid (a low pH). Once it is mixed with something that dilutes the acidity, it will not last as long. Since citrus acidity varies and the home cook has no real idea of its strength, some care should be taken. Usually it may be kept up to a month, tightly sealed in the refrigerator. Peculiarly, egg yolks do not like sugar sitting on top of them without any agitation from spoon or whisk. The sugar tends to “cook” the egg yolk.
5 large egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 to 4 lemons to make 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice and approximately 3 tablespoons rind
Lightly whisk the egg yolks in a heavy saucepan, bowl or a bain-marie or double boiler. Whisk in the sugar and butter, then the lemon juice. Set the rind in the bottom of a bowl topped with a strainer.
Stir the egg mixture with a rubber spatula over low heat until thick but still falls easily from a spoon, 5 to 10 minutes, making sure to scrape the sides and bottom occasionally. The temperature should register approximately 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, but it is not a disaster if the mixture simmers at the edges of the pan. Quickly strain. It will be usable if smooth and no egg bits remain.
Add the rind. Taste for flavor and add more juice or rind if necessary and available. Remove from the heat and cool. Store in the refrigerator in a tightly covered jar.
- To lighten, fold in whipped cream
There are two specific kinds of sugar work and caramelization: dry and wet. Some people find it very easy to melt sugar in a pan and stir it until it caramelizes. Others like adding some liquid, from an equal amount to a fraction of the amount of sugar. Although it takes longer to remove all the liquid, it is a safer and easier method of caramelizing. Liquid can be added back into the hard caramel, as in this case, to make a sauce. The corn syrup is a stabilizer, making it much easier to work with in humid climates. After practicing a time or two with the full complement of water, reduce the amount of initial water to what is comfortable to the cook, or remove it entirely.
The trick is to dissolve the sugar before bringing it to a boil. This is doubly important when it is humid and the sugar is clumping and retaining moisture. If the syrup boils before the sugar is dissolved, crystallization will occur. The same thing will happen if, once the sugar is dissolved and begins to boil, a spoon, the sides of the pan, or other objects with grains of sugar attached cause undissolved sugar to drop into the boiling liquid. For this reason, some like to cover the pan, letting the resulting steam wash down the sides. Because covering the pan can cause inattention, I prefer a cup of water and a pastry brush. I brush down the insides of the pan with the wet pastry brush before bringing the mixture to a boil, and I return the spoon to the cup of water in between stirring.
A different result comes from the different kind of sugars, with preferences open to the cook.
1 cup granulated sugar, a mixture of brown and granulated sugar, brown sugar, or honey
1/4 cup white corn syrup
2 cups water, divided
Heat the sugar in a saucepan with 1/4 cup of corn syrup and 1 cup water, but do not boil. Stir to completely dissolve the sugar in the water if necessary. (There may be a little “sugar scum” on top, but the sugar on the bottom should be dissolved.) If there are sugar crystals on the sides, brush down the sides of the pan with some water. If the caramel browns too quickly, add cold water to a frying or roasting pan large enough to immerse the caramel pan.
Once the sugar is completely dissolved, bring to a boil. Boil steadily until large bubbles form on the surface. Watch closely as the caramel turns from bursting bubbles to little bubbles then caramel. Cover hands or use an oven mitt and tip the pan once it colors so the sugar is uniformly colored. When it turns amber, remove from the heat. It will continue to bubble. If it becomes as dark as mahogany, carefully move it to the pan of water to cool it down immediately and stop the cooking. (Be careful of the bubbling water and sugar.) Wipe the bottom if necessary and return to the heat, adding the remaining cup of water. Return to a boil. If part of the caramel syrup has solidified, stir with a clean wooden spoon so the caramel will be evenly distributed. Bring back to a boil, and boil until reduced by 1/4 and slightly syrupy. Cool, pour into another container and chill. This will last several weeks in the refrigerator, covered.