Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Andrea Chesman: Celebrating with Strawberries

This time of year in New England, strawberries are plentiful in backyard patches and in fields at pick-your-own farms, but their season is relatively short. Author Andrea Chesman isn’t bashful about indulging her strawberry tooth while the berries are at their best. Here, she explains how to navigate the pectin question when making jam, and shares a recipe for strawberry pie with a no-bake filling of fresh berries at peak flavor.

Yesterday I finished writing the manuscript for what will be the complete kitchen handbook for Storey’s Backyard Homestead series. Today, I celebrated — by making strawberry jam.

Strawberries have a siren call in late June and early July. They are the first fruit of the season, and they exert a powerful call to those of us who have made do with last summer’s bounty, stored away until it was all gone (though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an errant bag of blueberries hiding behind the lamb I recently bought. My freezer management skills are nothing to boast about.).

I digress.

Even though I was under great deadline pressure, I made time last month to go to Norris Berry Farm in Monkton, Vermont, with my friend Andrea, where we each picked about 15 pounds effortlessly, in no time at all. It was a perfect June day, and the strawberries were at that stage where the biggest berries in each cluster were ripe. It seemed we were picking in a row that hadn’t been picked over this season.

Now I am strawberrying through my days: just strawberries with a little sugar and crรจme fraiche first, then fresh strawberry pie. Strawberry jam this morning.

More strawberry stories and a recipe for a perfect fresh strawberry pie after the jump!

The perennial question with summer jams is whether or not to add pectin and which to use. Pectin occurs naturally in fruit; it contributes to the structure of the cell walls. As the fruit ripens, the pectin degrades; hard, underripe fruits have more pectin than soft, overripe ones. The old-fashioned way to make jam is to cook the fruit slowly, slowly, slowly, until most of the liquid has either evaporated out or has congealed into a gel in the presence of pectin. Jams of high-pectin fruits, like blackberries, don’t take much time to make by this method. Strawberries, on the other hand, require so much cooking that in the end, you are left with a minuscule amount of jam with caramelized sugar notes.

Because it is such a hot day, because I have just liberated myself from one deadline, I decide to go with the convenience of commercial pectin.

Commercial pectin, like homemade pectin, is extracted from citrus peels and seeds of apples and made into either a powder or a liquid. These pectins first hit the market in the 1920s and 1930s; before that, people added pectin-rich fruits to jams when they wanted a firm set.

The trick with commercial pectin is that you have to follow the recipe from the manufacturer; brands of different commercial pectin are not interchangeable.

The first pectins to arrive on shelves — Sure-Jell and Certo — were activated by white sugar and acid. They required almost as much sugar by volume as fruit. Enter Pomona’s Universal Pectin — most frequently found in natural food stores and sold online — which allows you to sweeten to taste. Sales took off, and many, many jam makers adopted Pomona’s as their go-to brand. Pomona’s pectin is activated by calcium (included in the box). It is a little fussy to use, in my opinion, but works fine.

Since Pomona’s became successful, and since sugar is Public Enemy Number 1 according to many, other manufacturers have come up with their own no-sugar and low-sugar versions. I have a favorite brand: Ball’s RealFruit Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin. It is ridiculously easy to use and gives a nice, soft set. At the website, which is Ball’s online store, they have a pectin calculator that lets you match the fruit with the right pectin to use and calculates how much of everything you need to make jam or jelly. It is quite handy, and here’s the thing: as much as I prefer to avoid commercial products, using a commercial pectin gets me out of the kitchen much faster on a day like today.

Toast anyone?
This recipe for strawberry pie comes from my 2009 book, 250 Treasured Country Desserts, co-written with Fran Raboff. I don’t think a finer pie can be made this time of year.

Fresh Strawberry Pie

This is the ultimate strawberry pie, the quintessential fresh fruit pie that preserves the fresh flavor of uncooked strawberries. The berries glisten like jewels in a thickened sauce that allows you to serve the pie in neat slices. It will be only as good as the strawberries you select, so wait until local berries are ready.

Serves 8

One 9-inch pie crust, baked
6 cups (1½ quarts) fresh strawberries, hulled and halved if large
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
⅛ teaspoon salt
½ cup water
½ cup whipping cream

  1. Place 2 cups of the berries in a blender or food processor and purรฉe. Set aside.
  2. Arrange half of the remaining strawberries in the baked pastry shell and set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the lemon juice and let soften.
  4. Whisk the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a heavy saucepan. Whisk in the water and purรฉed berries. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Boil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the softened gelatin until smooth. 
  5. Pour half of the strawberry sauce over the strawberries in the pastry shell. Shake the pie pan gently to evenly distribute the sauce. Add the remaining uncooked strawberries. Spoon the remaining strawberry sauce evenly over the berries. Chill for at least 4 hours, up to 8 hours, before serving. 
  6. Whip the cream in a small bowl until soft peaks form. Serve each slice with a dollop of whipped cream.
Recipe excerpted from 250 Treasured Country Desserts © 2009 by Andrea Chesman and Fran Raboff. All rights reserved. 

Photos © Andrea Chesman

Andrea Chesman is the author of many cookbooks, including The Pickled PantryRecipes from the Root CellarPickles and RelishesMom’s Best One-Dish Suppers, and The Vegetarian Grill, which was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Book Award and won a National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence. She is a coauthor of 250 Treasured Country Desserts and The Classic Zucchini Cookbook, and her articles have appeared in the New York TimesCooking LightFood & WineVegetarian TimesOrganic GardeningFine Cooking, and other publications. Visit Andrea's website.

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