After I moved from New York City to this lovely hilltop in Pennsylvania where my husband lived with his two young children, it took me a few years to get the gardening bug. I was just too busy learning to become a parent, although I felt from the beginning that with all that space around us (the storage room being as big as my bedroom was in the city), not growing your own food would be a shame.
The first summer, I did put in a couple of basil plants. I remember taking large bunches of it to the office, the scent filling the room, and my coworkers marveling about it (thankfully, the days of commuting are long over).
I started the garden in 2004, a year when our family was facing a serious health issue. That first-year garden, as tentative and modest as it may seem to me from today’s perspective, helped me keep my sanity. Gardening, whether for food or for beauty, has been my outlet ever since.
To celebrate my 9th gardening season, as well as our wedding anniversary today, I cannot think of a more befitting food than homegrown strawberries. Do I need to say that the critters seem to leave most of the strawberries alone now? They do!
Mini Strawberry Vacherins
I have made Vacherin quite a few times before but usually as one large cake. Even though it vanishes quickly so appearance really does not matter that much, after cutting the meringue does not look half as pretty. This time, I made four small Vacherins.
The meringue can be made one day ahead and stored in a dry place.
¼ cup ground hazelnuts
¼ cup ground walnuts
6 large egg whites
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup superfine sugar
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons vanilla sugar, or 2 tablespoons sugar + 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Lightly toast the hazelnuts and the walnuts in a non-greased pan. Make sure there are no larger pieces in the mix, as they will clog the pastry tip (speaking from experience here). Set aside to cool.
2. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a food-grade pencil, draw 12 circles with a 3.5-inch diameter, leaving at least ½ inch between them.
3. Beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar in a large bowl at medium speed until foamy. Increase the speed and gradually add the superfine sugar, then the confectioners’ sugar. Continue beating until the mixture is stiff and glossy. Fold in the nuts.
4. Place a pastry bag with a plain tip in a large tall glass. Fill the bag with the batter in three batches in order not to overfill. Pipe thick circles onto the prepared baking sheets, starting on the outside and working your way inside in a spiral until the circle is filled. Even out the surface with a knife if necessary.
5. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Place the baking sheet on the 2nd and 4th shelf of the oven and bake for 3 hours, or until the meringue is totally dry to the touch and crisp but not colored. Leave the baking sheets in the oven with the doors closed until it has completely cooled down.
6. Take the baking sheets out of the oven. Gently remove the meringue circles from the parchment. Place on a cake rack.
7. Whip the heavy cream with the vanilla sugar. Spread half of it on four meringue circles and arrange sliced strawberries on top. Place a second meringue circle on each and repeat with the remaining cream and strawberries. Place the last meringue circles on top. Serve right away, or refrigerate for a few hours but serve the same day.
Makes 4 to 6 servings