Making the Most of the Most Regal of Berries

"Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did," Dr. William Boteler wrote back in the year 16-something-or-other.

The good doctor was speaking of, what else, The Strawberry. And who would dare disagree?

Sweet, sensuous, and succulent, no fruit speaks more of summer than this red, heart-shaped berry.

Picked at their peak from your kitchen-garden, or along sun-drenched rows at a local farm, they reign without rival.

Melons melt in their presence; pears go pale; grapes gasp, and bananas well, go bananas.

A summer without strawberry shortcake is a summer forgotten. We're not talking about those soggy round sponge cakes from the supermarket, but homemade baking-powder, or cream biscuits. Strawberries should sit enthroned, not wallow on a water bed.

Indulge yourself with a warm homemade biscuit, piled with fresh berries and crowned with heavy vanilla-infused, lightly sugared hand-whipped cream. (Save those aerosol cans of shake-and-spray toppings for Father's Day. Dad may have run out of shaving cream.)

Strawberry Shortcake may be the ne plus ultra of berry desserts, but wait, there's more. Consider the strawberry's extraordinary versatility: Tarts, pies, juices, syrups, preserves, ice cream, jams, jellies, mousse, cobblers, etc., etc., etc. Whew!

Try that with a kumquat.

When shopping, get in-season berries, whenever available.

Avoid strawberries that are bruised, or show any sign of mold, or leakage on the package. They should be red as pigeon-blood rubies with no white shoulders. A sweet aroma is the best test for ripe berries.

And remember, bigger may be impressive, but it doesn't mean better. All things being equal, chose smaller, rounder berries as apposed to large flat ones. Save those bowling balls for garnish.

Caprial Pence is well known for her award-winning TV cooking show, "Caprial's Cafe." She is the author of several cookbooks, including "Cooking With Caprial" (Ten Speed Press, $24.95). The Strawberry Shortcake recipe below is based on one from that book.

Caprial's Ginger-Flavored Strawberry Shortcake

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 teaspoons diced crystallized ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/4 cup unsalted butter, diced

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk

2 pints strawberries, hulled (save one whole berry to garnish each shortcake)

1-1/2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-size bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, crystallized and ground ginger, and almond extract. Add butter and rub together with your fingertips to form a coarse meal. Add milk and mix with a fork just until the dough comes together. On a floured surface, roll dough out to a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Cut 6 circles or triangles from the dough. Place them on a greased baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

To assemble, crush about 1/3 of the strawberries in a small bowl with a sprinkling of sugar. Cut remaining berries in halves, or quarters if they are large, saving a whole unhulled berry to top each shortcake.

Whip cream with 1/4 cup of sugar until it forms soft peaks - do not over beat. Split the shortcakes and place on individual plates. Top the bottom halves with half the whipped cream, all the crushed berries and half of the sliced ones. Top with remaining shortcake halves, the sliced strawberries, and whipped cream. Garnish each shortcake with a whole strawberry.

Serves 6.

Cold Strawberry Soup

This makes an elegant summer dessert. The recipe makes two cups, it may be doubled. Add a tablespoon of chopped, fresh tarragon for a delightful change.

1 pint fresh strawberries, washed and hulled, plus a few whole berries for garnish

1/2 cup orange juice

2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons cold water

2 tablespoons sugar

2/3 cup plain or vanilla yogurt

8 fresh mint leaves

1 cup vanilla-flavored whipped cream for optional garnish

Puree 1 pint of berries and orange juice in food processor or blender until fairly smooth; transfer to saucepan.

In a cup, mix cornstarch and water; pour into strawberry mixture.

Heat mixture until boiling, while stirring. Cook, while stirring, for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let cool about 15 minutes. Whisk in sugar and yogurt. Let cool to room temperature and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.

Pour soup into chilled bowls. Top with a dollop of whipped cream, mint leaves, and a strawberry.

Serves 2 to 4.

Strawberry Orange Smoothie

1 cup orange juice

1 cup hulled and halved fresh strawberries, frozen

2 bananas, peeled, sliced in 1-inch pieces, frozen

1/2 cup vanilla yogurt

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor; blend until smooth.

Serves 2.

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