Learning curves

Last summer slugs decimated the strawberry harvest from my garden. This year I was prepared. Or so I thought. I had a bag of diatomaceous earth stand by, and an old salt shaker to spread it around the plants. But there were no slugs. Instead, chipmunks discovered the strawberry patch and took a bite out of every single ripe strawberry. Continue reading

Summer bliss, bumps notwithstanding

In the winter, there are days we get stuck on our hilltop. With the Internet working and the pantry stocked, we are fully operational but cabin fever hits easily. Once, after three days, my husband and I decided to hike to the post office to get our mail. Halfway, he wisely turned around with our dog. He did not want to risk an injury on the icy roads, and the poor skinny dog was shaking terribly from the cold (Vizslas don’t have undercoats). I moved on and walked the four miles to the post office and back. Until that day, I had no idea what shin splints are. The next day, I knew.

Winter can be dreadful but then comes summer, and all is forgotten. Every year it hits me again how beautiful this area is. I have biked and driven on those country roads a thousand times, yet every year I find it breathtakingly beautiful: the rolling hills where farm fields alternate with wooded areas, the many small creeks, the tidy farms with their red barns and corn storage bins, and happy cows.

Sure, I moan and groan like everybody else when the temperature reaches 95 degrees and it is so humid that you have to store bread in the fridge so it doesn’t mold. And then all those itchy bumps from insect bites… I get stung even through clothing. This year is particularly bad, maybe because the winter was so mild.

I remember sitting in a sub-zero air-conditioned office in New York City on a hot summer day and dreaming of being in the country. Now I am in the country, and I am fully enjoying it – despite the bugs.

Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

During strawberry season, I tossed all the not-so-pretty strawberries from the garden in the freezer for jam. After making jam last week I had some leftover strawberries so I made a variation of my Berry Frozen Yogurt.

I like cooking the strawberry puree first  – it gives the frozen yogurt more flavor, and the strawberry puree keeps longer if you don’t use it right away. But you can also use the raw puree and add the whole amount of sugar at once.

1½ cups strawberry puree, passed through a food mill

1 cup sugar

2 cups sour cream

½ cup heavy cream

1. Put the strawberry puree in a small saucepan with ½ cup sugar. Bring to a quick boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool. Chill thoroughly.

2. In a bowl mix the chilled strawberry puree with all remaining ingredients well with a wire whisk until the sugar dissolves.

3. Process the frozen yogurt in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

4. Fill frozen yogurt in plastic containers with tight lids and place in the freezer until solidly frozen. To soften, remove from the freezer 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Strawberry mission accomplished

Finally, after taking all sorts of measures to protect strawberries against critters, there are enough strawberries from the garden to make Rote Grütze, the German red berry dessert that was my favorite as a child. The recipe can be found in my cookbook Spoonfuls of Germany.

Rote Grütze can be served with vanilla sauce, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, liquid heavy cream, or plain milk. My favorite has always been vanilla sauce made from scratch – lots of it, therefore I often double the amounts.

 

Two anniversaries

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.

Meringue:

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

Topping:

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons vanilla sugar, or 2 tablespoons sugar + 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sliced strawberries

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

Strawberry suspense

Our first strawberry harvest, and we would have a bumper crop if some animal, or animals, was not taking a bite from almost every ripe strawberry. I am in the middle of a critter war – again.

Every time I try a new deterrent, checking out the strawberries the next day is more suspenseful than watching a thriller. I warily walk down to the strawberry patch, bracing myself for what I am about to find. First I stand there for a few seconds with my eyes closed, then I slowly open my eyes and start looking around.

The amount of Epsom salt I spread around the perimeter of the patch this morning should make the strawberry thieves sneeze so hard we should hear it by the house. But again, if the critters are as keen on the strawberries as I am they might just pinch their noses and continue nibbling.

One way of distracting myself from garden woes is to make something quick and easy from a hassle-free crop. Harvesting those beautiful radishes made me think back to the time when the rabbits could squeeze through the fence and devoured the radish greens down to the ground. So it is again just a question of notching up the defense; maybe it’s time to reconsider a fence around the strawberry patch. Meanwhile I will listen out for the sound of sneezing tonight.

Radish Salmon Spread

8 ounces low-fat cream cheese, softened

1 tablespoon milk

3 ounces smoked salmon, finely chopped

1 bunch radishes, finely chopped (about ¾ cup)

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh dill

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Stir the cream cheese and the milk until smooth. Add the radishes and fold in with a spatula, then fold in the salmon and dill. Season with pepper to taste.

2. Refrigerate. Take out of the fridge 15 minutes before serving.

Know no shame, or: Anything for strawberries

Even after ten years in the country, I am squeamish as can be about anything furry – dead, alive, or in-between. Once our dog killed a groundhog in front of the garage door and it remained there until my husband returned from a trip to his parents a couple of days later. My mother-in-law, on one of my hysterical phone calls, recommended to cover it with an old towel, then load it onto a shovel, but just approaching the thing sent me screaming.

When it comes to protecting the new strawberry patch, however, I seem to be turning into a fearless, indelicate roughneck. The new commercial repellent I spread around the patch about a week ago seems to be working. But when I was weeding down there the other day and saw our dog lift his leg a few times around the patch, I had an idea. I had read somewhere that fermented human urine works as a critter repellent. Since we won’t be eating strawberries from the patch until next summer, and urine is sterile anyway, why not collect our own organic repellent? I sprinkled an old lemonade bottle full of donations around the perimeter of the patch twice this week. No rabbit damage so far!

But the next worry is already lurking around the corner. When I bought strawberries from our neighbor yesterday, he complained about half of his patch being affected by fungus because he had sprayed only once this season. Of course, now I am wondering what else will I have to battle after the rabbit plague, especially because I want to grow the strawberries organically, like the rest of the garden.

Enough kvetching, let’s get to the bright side of strawberries. Thanks to the healthy half of our neighbor’s strawberry patch, I was able to make another strawberry cake. It had to be something really easy and quick with the ingredients I had in the house, which was low-fat ricotta, but certainly whole-milk ricotta will make an even better, creamier filling.

Strawberry-Ricotta Roulade with Pistachios

Sponge cake:

2 eggs + 1 egg white

½ cup sugar

¾ cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

Filling:

¼ cup shelled pistachios

12 ounces strawberries

10 ounces ricotta

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ cup confectioner’s sugar, more for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line the bottom of a 16 x 11-inch jellyroll pan with parchment. Grease the parchment and the sides of the pan.

2. Beat the eggs and the egg white until light and fluffy.

3. Mix the flour with the baking powder and the salt and sift into the eggs. Fold it into the eggs lightly but thoroughly until no more flour pockets remain.

4. Pour the dough into the jellyroll pan and smoothen it with a spatula.

5. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, or until golden and springy to the touch.

6. Lift the parchment with the sponge cake onto the kitchen counter or a baking sheet and cover immediately with a clean dry kitchen towel. Let cool.

7. Lightly toast the pistachios. Cool, then chop and set aside.

8. Beat the ricotta with the vanilla extract and the confectioner’s sugar until smooth and creamy.

9. Wash, hull and slice the strawberries.

10. Flip the parchment with the sponge cake over and place it on a large baking sheet lined with the kitchen towel or with parchment. Carefully remove the parchment from the baking of the sponge cake.

11. Spread the ricotta evenly over the sponge cake, leaving about ½ inch uncovered on the long sides. Spread the sliced strawberries on top and sprinkle with the pistachios.

12. Using the towel as a lifter, roll up the cake from the long side. Place the roulade with the seam-side down on a serving platter. If you are making this just en famille, and not for fancy presentation, or if you don’t. have a platter long enough, cut it in half to fit, (that’s what I did). Chill for 1 hour. Dust with confectioner’s sugar before serving.

Bunny wars (cont.)

I did not do my homework, or I was naïve, or both, thinking that the rabbits would leave my new strawberry patch alone. They are systematically eating their way through the rows. I should have known better – pet rabbits are given strawberry leaves as a treat. Fencing in the strawberry patch is out of the question because to really keep the bunnies out, the fence needs to be galvanized hardwire cloth, buried 6 inches in the ground and at least 3 feet high, like my vegetable garden. Even a stubborn gardener like me must admit that this is not economical for a strawberry patch, and very labor-intensive.

But I wasn’t ready to give up just as yet so as a last attempt (all products I have tried in the past did not work), I bought Plantskydd, an organic rabbit repellent from Sweden that is supposed to do miracles. With one leaf left on a plant, so I learned, the strawberries might survive the onslaught. If in a week or so, the new leaves are not chewed off, the stuff works. Until then, I am not getting my hopes up too high.

Fortunately, our neighbor, a part-time farmer, grows strawberries. He has supplied us with super-ripe strawberries twice this week. This strawberry cake was an impromptu operation so I used what I had on hand. For the lining of the crust, I made a small batch of strawberry jam of the ripest strawberries. Unless it’s top-quality or homemade, I find most strawberry jams nothing but sugary so this was more than a solution borne out of necessity.Strawberry Cake with Vanilla Custard

Crust:

¾ cup + 2 tablespoons (125 g) all-purpose flour

2½ level teaspoons baking powder

½ cup (100 g) sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs

3 tablespoons lemon agrumato olive oil (or lemon-infused olive oil)

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 pinch salt

Filling:

1¼  to 1½ pounds washed and hulled strawberries

Strawberry jam for brushing

1 batch homemade vanilla pudding (recipe is on my other blog, Spoonfuls of Germany)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees Celsius). Line a 10-inch (25 cm) cake pan or springform pan with baking parchment and grease the sides.

2. Add all ingredients for the crust to a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until combined, then beat at high speed for 1 minute. Pour into the prepared pan.

3. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until firm and golden. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly then unmold onto a cake rack and let cool completely.

4. Brush the cake with jam.

5. Prepare vanilla pudding following recipe. Spread on cake while still lukewarm, leaving about ½ inch (1.25 cm) free all around to give the custard room to spread without dripping down the sides.

6. Wash and hull strawberries and arrange in an overlapping shingle pattern. Refrigerate and serve within a day.

Makes 1 cake 

Strawberry patience test

It made me cringe when I pinched off two handfuls of flower buds from the 70 strawberries I planted in the new patch in April. But that’s what you are supposed to do in order to get stronger plants and a good crop next year. Alas, no strawberries this year! For now I can only dream of Rote Grütze, one of my favorite German desserts. Later in the season I will make it with raspberries, red currants and blueberries. The recipe can be found in my cookbook Spoonfuls of Germany.

The word “Grütze” is anything but appealing in German, meaning something like “grits”. Hence as a kid because I loved the dessert so much but disliked the name, I renamed it “nostalgia pudding”, as it was a very old-fashioned dessert back then. Rote Grütze has since made a huge comeback in Germany and is now available in all types of weird concoctions such as Rote Grütze tea. I stick with the classic.