Apparently, I'm hard at work on a bad habit. I think of myself as a girl of resolve, able to make decisions and carry them through. But I'm becoming iffy and fickle (I think), if this here year's any indication. See, I was all set to tell you about summer plans, and strawberry salads and insignificant triumphs. But that was yesterday.
Today, well, today I've changed my mind completely, and I'm chucking it all, in the name of dessert. I've done it before, and I'm doing it again, and if history's still the scratchy LP I know it to be, I'm bound to be back, covered in crumbs and excuses. It could be worse.
I've got a good explanation, for what it's worth. A superb one, really, at least this time. Our week was wrapping up all orderly and ordinary, in that long-awaited, everyone's-finally-out-now way, when Friday pitched us a curve-ball of the very best sort.
The phone rang, right in the middle of some vital-nothing, and I can't imagine why I answered, as I often don't in these moments. But I did, oh I did!, and I'm still thanking my luckies. Because what to my wondering ears should appear, but my dear old friend Dania, just passing through.
Allow me to clarify. By 'dear old friend', I mean we've known each other for ages, since before we had kids or husbands or licenses. Permits, even, were several years out. If I were to be yawningly accurate, a quick calculation tells me we've made it past the quarter-century mark. But let's just call it quite some time and leave it at that.
By 'just passing through', I mean she was on a road-trip. With her family of six, driving cross-country, moving house from Seattle to D.C. Since June 3. Friday was June 11. They could have made it to their destination Friday night. They stopped, detoured actually, to see us instead. Did I mention that four of those six are ten and under? (And to think I had qualms driving three kids six hours.) I could share all manner of wonderful about Dania, how she's the kindest, most gentle, most genuine person I know. But I think the stats are more articulate by far.
Obviously, plans were made on the spot, to hang and play and chat and eat. Their E.T.A was dinner, and dinner begs dessert, and dessert in June is obviously strawberries. Or that's my new tune, anyway.pavlovas and brown betties. In April, anyway, when strawberry season's still months away. But when push comes to shove, and June's heat rumbles in, I can never muster much dessert enthusiasm. I tend to prefer my strawberries straight-up, or if disguised as dessert, dipped in cream, whipped or soured.
Or at least I did, back when I was decisive. My new wishy-washy self has found pie. A deeply, profoundly strawberry pie. It is not a piece of art, or even high eating, but it's what I've always wished for in a fancied-up strawberry: a way of making strawberries taste more like themselves. Richer, rounder, sweeter, tarter, plumper, juicier, redder by far. But still and only strawberry, start to finish. Strawberries amplified, if you will.
It is a brilliant sort of a pie, involving very little cooking and very much mincing. The crust is crumb-based, which means two winning things: eighteen minutes in the oven, and pressing, no rolling. Already, we're talking high points for hot days. And the filling, it isn't baked at all, though it's as slow as it is simple to pull together.
The only odd bit is the chopping, which is really the alpha and omega of it all. You take two pounds of berries, reserve the best and brightest, and chop the rest into 1/4" dice. Weird, no? I did a double-take, too. And seriously considered rounding up. By a lot. There are quite a few quarter-inches in two pounds. But I knew not to doubt, considering the source, and set about mincing my berries to bits.
And as my bowl filled with strawberry schrapnel, I suddenly understood the technique, which is nothing more complicated than surface area, and nothing less sublime than transubstantiation. Aided by sugar and abetted by lemon, all those surfaces leak juice, ruby-red and abundant. It's a little messy. You might kick up some juice along the way. The whole scene is rather Jamberry meets Halloween IV. Oh, but it's worth it.
This juice is siphoned off and barely set with gelatin, which struck fear in my heart but turned out plump and luscious. (Oops, there I go again, skipping to the ending.) You stir this elixir back into the berries, which settle into a soft glossy jewel. The whole mess gets tumbled into the crust, and studded with whole berries along the way. And then you just wait, a good four hours, while the whole thing sets and settles and chills. That was really the only hard part. Though it wasn't half as hard as waiting for Dania.
In the end, we had not only dinner and dessert, but breakfast besides, just the two of us. No small feat, with seven small children between us. (I'm beaming up gratitude to certain family members as I type.) This, as it turned out, was the very best sort of dessert, plain time together, a sweet lazy luxury. But barring that, this pie makes a nice substitute.
Strictly summer fare, this. If berries aren't local, fresh and bursting with flavor, bookmark this one for the next time they are. The original called for crushed cookies, but I adore a good graham cracker crust for it's caramel-tinged crunch. This is my go-to graham crust, seen before under chocolate. I'm re-printing it here so that nothing stands between you and delicious.
Please note this pie requires 5 hours' lead time, to set and chill.
Graham Cracker Crust:
9 graham crackers (1 sleeve, 5 ounces)
2 Tbl. sugar
5 Tbl. salted butter, melted and warm
2# fresh, local strawberries
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 envelope unflavored gelatin (2 1/4 tsp.)
Prepare Graham Cracker Crust:
Place oven rack in middle position, and preheat oven to 325°.
Roughly break graham crackers, then pulverize to a fine powder in a food processor, about 30 seconds. Add sugar, and pulse briefly to combine. Add melted butter through feed tube in a slow, steady stream, pulsing as you go to combine, until mixture resembles sand.
Transfer the crumbs to a 9" glass pie plate. Spread lightly to distribute, then gently, firmly, press crumbs into bottom and up sides of pie plate, using the bottom of a measuring cup or small ramekin. It will remain very loose; aim for general coverage. The crust will firm up considerably as it bakes. Bake 15-18 minutes, until your kitchen is filled with good smells, and the crust is lightly browned. Cool completely while making the filling.
To Prepare Filling:
Select 20 large or 26 medium strawberries, remove stems, and set aside. Red and plump are nice, but they need not be perfect. Cut remaining berries into 1/4" dice, and gently toss with lemon juice and sugar. Let stand, stirring now and again, about 30 minutes, for juices to form. Pour berries into a sieve, set over a large bowl. Let berries drain 5-10 minutes, then pour accumulated juices into a 2 cup (or larger) measure. Add water to bring liquid up to 2 cups, then pour into a medium saucepan.
Sprinkle gelatin over the juices, and let sit for one minute to soften. Bring just to a simmer, stirring to dissolve gelatin, then remove from heat and pour over diced berries. Pour berries and juices into a metal bowl, fill another large bowl with ice cubes, and nestle berry bowl down into ice bath, to chill. Stir berries frequently, 30-45 minutes, until berries begin to mound slightly. You'll think it won't happen, that something's gone wrong. It will. Really.
Spread 1/2 - 1 cup of berries onto bottom of crust. Place whole, reserved berries on top of this layer, stem side down. Spoon remaining minced berries around and over whole berries, until you reach the rim of the crust. Whole berries will likely be submerged; this is fine. Leftover filling can be poured into a small bowl, and set separately.
Place pie in refrigerator, and chill for 4 hours, or until pie is set.
Best served in the company of freshly whipped cream and dear old friends.