I associate summer with the aroma of strawberries permeating every molecule of air in the house. The kitchen would be fragrant with tangy-sweet berry smells as my dad sat at the table hulling flat after flat of ripe strawberries and my mother kept an eye the shimmering garnet colored jam as bubbles slowly rose to the surface and popped, almost in slow motion. Each pop led to a burst of the scent of fruit.
Every once in awhile my dad would eye a particularly big, juicy strawberry suspiciously and hand it to me. “Too big for jam, you’d better eat it.”
We never had strawberry pie or strawberry cake. Strawberries were held sacred by my family, their only purposes were to be eaten out of hand when still cozily warm from the sun, to be sliced, macerated, and then spooned lavishly over hot biscuits and vanilla ice cream, or to be made into sparkling jars of jam.
It is with a distinct feeling of rebellion that I make strawberry pies, cakes, and tarts — half guilty and half joyous in my personal freedom.
Those huge berries were not at all related to the insipid, bland, hybridized to death berries I see in the stores. They were usually from Farmer’s Market or a roadside stand. There was usually a table with baskets of berries and a jar with a label that said, “Pay here. Thank you.” It’s amazing that the jars were full of crumpled bills and no one seemed to run off with either the money or the berries. We lived in Southwestern New Jersey for a couple of years and were surrounded by Pick Your Own farms. For 50 cents or a dollar you could work your way down rows of lush plants, picking berries, eating a few, and finally triumphantly heading home with sandy soil in your shoes, a red ring around your mouth, and plenty of berries for jam.
I miss those days.
When I saw these berries I was definitely intent on creating with them. I did make a strawberry shortcake in honor of my parents (and the fact that we traditionally eat strawberry shortcake for dinner – not dessert but only shortcake and nothing else – at the beginning of the season.
This strawberry and cream tart looks complex but it is super simple to make. The pate sucre is sweet and buttery – plus you can just push it into the pie pan – no rolling. The pastry cream is flavored with toasted marshmallow syrup but you can use vanilla or almond as well. I glazed it with raspberry jam because I think it makes the flavor a little deeper but you can use strawberry jam as well.
They only baking you’ll do is to precook the crust — and you can do that a day ahead if you like. Let the strawberry and cream tart chill several hours before slicing so that you’ll get nice, clean slices.
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