This weekend we reached the farmer’s market too late to get Hood strawberries, so I had to settle for Totems instead. I was curious to see Nolan’s response to strawberries, as last summer he wanted nothing to do with them; since then he has become a fan of strawberry jam and freeze-dried strawberries. When I parked the stroller next to one of the berry booths, he immediately perked up and started reaching for a stray berry that had fallen out of its basket, so I quickly purchased my two pints and moved us off into the shade for a legitimate sample. Nolan took one tiny nibble of his strawberry and promptly spat it out; when I offered it again, he sucked out some of the juice and decided maybe it wasn’t so bad. In the end, he ate most of one berry and seemed to reach a tentative approval.
When we don’t eat our strawberries out of hand, I usually make some sort of pound cake for strawberry shortcake, as they don’t get totally mushy in the face of strawberry juice. My favorite pound cake recipe includes cream cheese, but it didn’t seem to take well to the convection oven, so I won’t post the recipe until I’ve got a pristine example to share. As for the berries, I stemmed and halved them all, and tossed them with a few tablespoons of sugar. Aside from making a perfect topping for the pound cake, macerating the berries this way helps to extend their very brief shelf life, thanks to the preservative qualities of the sugar. After two or three days, however, we still had about a cup of berries in the fridge, and I was afraid they wouldn’t keep any longer, so I sought out another recipe to use them up in one shot.
I ended up selecting a recipe for individual strawberry brown-butter bettys, a spring spin on the classic brown betty, which is typically made in a casserole dish with breadcrumbs and apples, and resembles a fruity bread pudding. Being a vehement opponent of most forms of soggy bread, I have never been tempted to make a brown betty until now, but I had all the ingredients and the small portions made the amounts readily adjustable, so I decided it was worth trying. We were out of sliced bread (and our usual sandwich fare is a more sturdy multi-grain variety anyway), so I substituted with some white sandwich rolls that Jeremy bought in bulk to serve with bratwurst. The split rolls didn’t flatten out quite as much as sliced bread would have, and they were a little narrow as well; I used a biscuit cutter to make circles, and they came about halfway up the wells of my silicone muffin pan. I realized, after stuffing the wells, that I was supposed to brush the pan with browned butter and sprinkle with sugar beforehand, but I just brushed the bread with extra butter instead. In the end, I used two rolls to make 9 tiny betty crusts, which was just the right amount for my remaining strawberries.
For the filling, I drained my remaining berries and tossed them with a bit of brown sugar, cinnamon, lemon zest, and enough panko to coat them and absorb the moisture. An extra sprinkle of sugar on top for luck, and they went in the oven; I gave them 2 or 3 minutes under the broiler at the very end to give the topping some crunch. While the bettys baked and cooled slightly, I worked on garnishes: sprigs of mint leftover from making dinner, whipped cream with touches of sugar and vanilla, and a strawberry-balsamic syrup made from the reserved strawberry juice. The finished dessert came together perfectly: buttery crust, warm berry filling reminiscent of a crisp, airy cream, and a touch of strawberry sauce for moisture. The baby ate two, crust-first, meaning that half of his strawberry filling ended up abandoned on the tray, and I loved them too, since there wasn’t a hint of soggy bread in sight. Jeremy wolfed his down, and is already hinting after an apple version; I suspect practically any fruit would work, perhaps with some adjustments to the spices, and I could really see serving these as a simple, homey, but simultaneously elegant dessert at a dinner party (not that I ever have occasion to throw dinner parties).
Individual Berry Bettys
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 tsp granulated sugar
6 slices white sandwich bread, crusts removed
3-4 T packed dark brown sugar, to taste
1/4 tsp dried lemon zest
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/3-1/2 C panko or homemade bread crumbs
about 1 C strawberries, stemmed and sliced
Softly whipped cream, for serving
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.
Stir together brown sugar, zest, cinnamon and salt, then add strawberries and toss to coat. Allow to sit and macerate for at least half an hour; the strawberries should soften and become very juicy.
In a small pot, melt butter over medium heat. Once melted, reduce heat to medium-low. The butter will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir frequently and watch it closely, because once it begins to take on color, it can scorch in under than a minute. Remove from heat.
Lightly butter muffin cups with some of brown butter, and sprinkle with granulated sugar. Roll bread slices with a rolling pin to flatten. Brush both sides with additional brown butter, then gently fit into muffin cups. (This is where I just put the bread into the muffin wells and brushed the insides with butter; more butter would make an even crisper crust.)
Drain the strawberries well, reserving the liquid; add panko to the berries, and toss to coat. Stir in any remaining brown butter. Heap strawberry mixture into cups, pressing gently. Sprinkle each cup with a pinch of sugar.
Cover pan with foil and bake 15 minutes. Uncover and bake until strawberries are very tender and filling is set, about 10 minutes more. Broil for about 2 minutes to put a little color on top of the filling. Remove from the oven, and let stand 5 minutes before removing from pan.
Meanwhile, pour the drained strawberry juice (I had about 1/3 cup) into a small saucepan, add a tiny splash of balsamic, and taste; add a tablespoon or so of sugar if it isn’t sweet enough for you. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half, until it reaches a thick, syrupy consistency. Keep warm until ready to serve. To serve, spoon a tablespoon or two of strawberry sauce onto a plate, top with warm or room temperature berry bettys, and garnish each with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.