Strawberries — sweet little kisses of summer… I know, I know, it’s not summer yet. But can’t a woman dream? Don’t know about you, but I had a perfect Mother’s Day weekend. Part of the program was a trip to a local strawberry patch, where we gathered three gallons of ready-to-eat picture perfect delicious strawberries in under 15 minutes! The patch was bursting with beautiful fragrant berries, only pick and eat. I was surprised at how few people were there, because everything about that day was simply perfect — the weather, the people, the berries, the sound of tall grass swaying in the breeze…
One of the aspects of growing up in a country where produce was consumed seasonally is anticipation that comes with it. Anticipation of the fresh fragrant strawberries was, in part, connected with anticipation of summer — lazy days at the beach, no school, walking around in open toe shoes, getting sun tanned (yes, you fear-mongering medics, you heard me, tanned, every day!), playing outside until dark, sleeping with windows open… All those things came very shortly after the strawberries appeared on the market — yellowish, frail and sour at first, dark red, sweet and juicy later.
At first, some time in mid May, you’d see folks excitedly forming long lines to get the vitamined treats for their young. Unscrupulous sales ladies, their faces coated in layers of exotic warrior make-up, their hair whipped up into shaggy pillows, their mighty torsos draped in dirty aprons bloodied with strawberry juice were selling them outside the government produce shops off the large tin counters painted light blue. No one was ever allowed to pick and choose the berries they wanted — they were grabbed with dirty hands, unceremoniously piled up on the counter scale, often under-weighed to the great benefit of the aforementioned sales ladies.
High demand items such as these were frequently under-weighed. We were used to this and considered ourselves lucky if we got 9/10 of the weight originally requested; most of the time getting about 8/10 or even 7/10 was a norm. Some citizens were carrying pocket scales to keep the glorious sales ladies in check, but no one dared to question them when strawberries were sold, at the risk of being banned from the line! To prevent bruising or mashing of the treasured treat, people were bringing with them enameled metal jugs and baskets to carry the spoils in.
Upon arrival home, strawberries were thoroughly washed, picked over, their stems carefully removed. My mom then would place them in a glass bowl and sprinkle sugar over so that the berries let out their fragrant juice. We enjoyed them with sour cream and farmer cheese, and sometimes by themselves.
As the summer was approaching, farmers would bring their home grown strawberries to our gigantic local farmer’s market. There we had some choices in both quality and price. We could pick our berries and we could haggle to lower the price. We were still cheated like mad, but this time it was worth it — the berries we got were far superior — tastier, stronger, prettier; many of them were sold in home made bark baskets to preserve their shape.
You may find this amusing, but we never purchased large berries; we were looking deliberately for the ones that were smaller. Reason? We suspected that the large berries were coming from Chernobyl; we thought that if a berry looked unusually large, and was so bloated that it was hollow inside, it must have been a victim or radiation. Don’t laugh, but this is how we were thinking back then.
Finally, towards the end of July it was time for the drastic action to be taken, as the strawberries were in their second season and the prices dropped dramatically. Our mom and her friend or her sister would consolidate their efforts — armed with large willow baskets and tin buckets, they would travel to the farmer’s market together. They would purchase vast quantities of strawberries at insanely low price. Then they would lock themselves up in the kitchen to make strawberry jam and strawberry compote. They labored for days at a time, sterilizing jars, pasteurizing, covering and turning the hot jars upside down on rows of kitchen towels to ensure the proper seal.
For us kids, they left the spoils — saucers filled with strawberry foam — light pink scum bubbling up to the top of the jam as it cooks. It was amazingly tasty — most delicate strawberry flavored marshmallow, slightly stretchy. We would have our last lick of the goodness, let out a sigh of content, and go back to our daily lives. Summer was at its peak and that feeling of anticipation was now gone. As the jars of jam and compote were put away for storage, we would forget all about the strawberries.
As the summer passed, we would go back to our school routines, music lessons, homework, etc… Summer was no longer calling our names — we were too caught up in the October leaves and horse chestnuts gathering, November parade, and New Year festivities, the first snow and other joys of winter. But then suddenly a gloomy day would come, when there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, and nothing on a horizon to look forward to — just a gray and hazy January morning with crows screaming in the frigid air on our street at dawn. It was just then, our mom would pull a jar of strawberry jam out of the storage and open it up… Hello, strawberries! Chewy, sweet and transparent, candy-like strawberries were spread on a slice of bread with butter, or added to the farmer cheese and sour cream bowl, or poured on top of pale thin crepes, or were just scooped with a spoon while drinking hot tea. It was like eating summer for breakfast. And that, I tell you my friends, is the way to live…
As I stroll along the produce counters at a supermarket, glancing in passing at the piles of strawberries on the shelves at any time of year, locked in plastic containers, all looking perfectly ripe, I often think to myself — maybe having it all at all times is not such a wonderful thing after all. It robs us of something so simple and so beautiful — the sense of excitement and anticipation, the sense of changing seasons and the appreciation of beauty of each and every one of them. It discourages us from honoring, celebrating and making the most of each season’s bounty and preserving it for rainy day. And our kids go on with their lives day after day, lacking nothing, wanting nothing, missing nothing…
Maybe it’s silly to think this way, I don’t know. But I still get childishly excited over freshly picked strawberries because they take me back to the times when I was able to see the seasons changing…
- 1-1/2 cup all-purpose flour, Smitten Kitchen suggests using 50/50 all-purpose and barley flour, which I did. Should you decide to do so, use 3/4 cup all-purpose and 3/4 cup barley flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1-1/2 tsp baking powder
- pinch of vanilla powder or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 6 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- zest of 1 lemon
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 lbs fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and coat with flour a 10 inch cake dish or a spring form.
- In a large bowl mix the first three ingredients. Add vanilla powder if using.
- Reserve 2 tbsp sugar for sprinkling strawberries.
- Cream butter, remaining sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest together until pale, uniform and fluffy. Using hand mixer is not required but will ease your life significantly. Adding lemon juice and zest at this point will intensify the lemony aroma and will make the mixture lighter in color.
- Add egg and milk. Continue whisking until combined. If using liquid vanilla extract, add it at this time.
- Add flour mixture in batches, until smooth batter forms. Batter may be a bit thick, depending on the size of the egg and the quality of the butter. If you feel it’s too thick, add 1-2 tbsp of milk and stir until smooth.
- Fold the batter out into the prepared baking dish and smooth it over with a moistened spatula or knife.
- Arrange strawberry halves on top of the batter, cut side down, placing them closely together. When cake is baking, it will rise slightly, and strawberries will move apart somewhat.
- Sprinkle reserved 2 tbsp sugar on top of strawberries.
- Bake in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 325F and bake for additional 50 minutes or until the toothpick or tip of the knife comes out dry when piercing the cake. Pierce the cake between strawberries to get the true test.
- Cool cake on rack and serve cold or warm with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
- The cake will store at room temperature for up to 2 days.