Today is the first day in I don’t know how many weeks that I dared to carefully walk anywhere else than to the compost bin without the risk of breaking an ankle, or having icicles on my eyelashes after a few minutes out in the cold. Continue reading
Come August, the days are over when I can just grab a pair of garden scissors and cut a bunch of picture-perfect flowers for a vase or a flower arrangement. Late-summer bloomers like zinnias are often covered with powdery mildew. Sunflowers, which bloom into October, don’t survive the voracity of the rabbits unless I protect every single stem with hardwire cloth. And, I am not too wild about dahlias, asters, and chrysanthemums.
Roaming around I found that a bunch of herbs is the best I can do right now: mint, sorrel, lavender, lemon verbena, lemon balm, dill, rosemary, sage, and parsley.
The herbs are still a lush green, their last big outburst of energy before shutting down for the winter, or dying. Having supplied my kitchen with wonderful flavors and scents for the last six months, they indeed deserved to be the centerpiece on the dining table on this gorgeous fall day.
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
2 eggs + 1 egg white
½ cup sugar
¾ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
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.
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
3½ ounces shortening
7½ ounces flour
¼ tablespoon salt
Ice water as needed
1¼ to 1½ pounds washed and hulled strawberries
4 teaspoons + ¼ cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
1 cup milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1. Put the shortening with the flour and the salt in the food processor and process to a crumbly consistency. Add ice water, a tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a ball. Wrap in foil and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2. In the meantime mash a few of the ripest, strawberries, and the least pretty ones (about 4 ounces) with a fork. Put them in a small saucepan with 4 teaspoons sugar and cook over low heat to a thick, jam-like consistency, stirring often. Set aside to cool.
3. Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a paring knife. Put the seeds, the bean and the milk in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
4. Stir the egg yolks with ¼ cup sugar and the cornstarch in a small bowl until the cornstarch is completely dissolved. When the milk boils, remove the vanilla bean. Take the saucepan off the heat and slowly pour the egg yolk mixture into the milk, whisking constantly. Put the pan back on the stove and cook over low heat until the custard thickens, whisking constantly. Set aside to cool, stirring once in a while to prevent a skin from forming.
5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
6. Roll out the dough to fit a 10-inch springform pan plus ½ inch edge. Place the dough into the pan. Even out the edge. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on top and fill with pie weights.
7. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven but to do not turn the oven off. Let stand 3 minutes, then remove the pie weights and carefully remove the foil. Put the pan back in the oven and bake for another 10 minutes, or until the crust is golden. Let the crust cool slightly on a rack, then brush is with the strawberry jam.
8. Spread the cooled vanilla custard on top. Slice the strawberries in slices and arrange them on the custard in a scale-like pattern. Chill until serving.