Sometimes a recipe is just a recipe. It’s a means to an end. And that end, although satisfying, is nothing more. But then there are things in life that bring back a flood of memories. When a recipe does this, or a particular ingredient in a recipe does this, it enhances the entire experience.
For me, small strawberries are one of these magical ingredients. Called “fraises des bois” (translation: “woodland strawberries”) in France, they’re almost entirely unavailable in the US. Finding any kind of strawberry other than the hugely oversized and often under-flavored supermarket varieties is a real undertaking.
For a little insight on why those supermarket strawberries are so often disappointing, check out this great piece I heard on the radio a few months ago. The piece notes our American love of bigger as one reason for the giant berries, but also adroitly notes the labor costs. Strawberries that are sold as fresh berries and not made into jam or some other product are picked by hand — and it’s much quicker and cheaper to pick a flat of large berries than one of small berries. So, large berries keep costs down by minimizing labor costs.
This is good for strawberry producers, but not so great for me. I still dream of the wild strawberries I picked when I was a kid in the Midwest. They grew alongside the roads and paths, and on the edges of the woods. I spent countless hours as a kid braving biting flies and mosquitos in search of these perfect tiny strawberries full of concentrated deliciousness.
Fast-forwarding a couple of decades, and living far from midwestern forest edges, I hadn’t seen these in forever. Until one day in Lyon, France at its most famous open-air market, the marché alimentaire Saint-Antoine Célestins.
I stopped in my tracks and stared at the beautiful little berries. Then I walked away, overwhelmed by the whole experience. Creeping back toward the berries, I racked my brain for what might be the French word for the container they were in. Was is a boîte (box) of berries? Was is a corbeille (basket) of berries? I had no idea.
I looked for a kind glance from one of the merchants working the stand for an invitation to fumble my way through the purchase of these berries. But it wasn’t happening. I realized that I’d have to assert myself among the throng of French people assertively asserting themselves at the stand. Not only would I have to fumble through this purchase, but I’d have to do it with a bunch of French ladies staring at me like I was a from another planet.
I considered passing, but I had to have these berries. So I did it. I think I even asked what the correct term was for the container, so that in the future I’d be able to ask for “un _____ de fraises des bois, s’il vous plaît.” But I’m pretty sure the term left my memory about two minutes after learning it. Sigh.
At any rate, strawberries in hand, and their juices oozing through the paper bag they were being carried in on the warm day, we walked to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where on a bench in one of the most beautiful parks I’d ever seen, we ate the berries, our fingers getting sticky with the intense strawberry juice.
I still haven’t come across tiny wild strawberries in the vast expanse of desert, asphalt, and palm trees that I live in now. But the next best thing are the Seascape variety sold by Harry’s Berries, found at farmer’s markets from Santa Barbara to LA. They’re on the small side, and one of these berries is basically equal in flavor to an entire pint of the supermarket variety.
So, having acquired some of these berries last week, I set out to make Berries Romanoff, a famous dessert of boozy berries and cold sour cream originally created for Russia’s ruling family by Marie-Antoine Carême, the world’s first celebrity chef. (For a great read, try the biography Cooking for Kings.)
Even if you don’t have the most amazing berries, it’s fine. This recipe will dress up even the most ordinary berries. As for the cold cream, I like to give it a spin in the ice-cream maker, but if you don’t have one, skip the vodka, substitute sweetened whipped cream for the milk and fold in the sour cream. It will be equally delicious.
- 1 pint (288 g) strawberries
- ½ cup (4 oz or 118 ml) orange-flavored liqueur (triple sec)
- ⅓ cup (67 g) sugar
- The zest of one lemon or orange, grated
- ½ cup (4 oz or 118 ml) milk
- ⅓ cup (3 oz or 89 ml) crème fraîche or sour cream
- 3 Tbsp. (38 g) sugar
- 1 tsp. (5 ml) vodka
- Washed, hull, and quarter the strawberries lengthwise. If your berries are especially large, slice them in ½ inch (1 cm) slices rather than quartering.
- Place the berries in a bowl and add the liqueur, sugar and lemon zest.
- Let the berries macerate in the liqueur for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to coat the berries in the boozy syrup. (If not using immediately, store the berries in the refrigerator this point until your ready to use them.)
- Combine the milk, sour cream and sugar in a blender and blend until combined.
- Stir in the vodka (this helps the mixture from freezing completely hard.)
- Place the mixture in your ice cream maker and churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Store in the freezer if not using immediately.
- Using a slotted spoon, put the berries in a serving dish or glass.
- Top with the cream (you probably won’t use it all, but save it for the next time!)
- If desired, drizzle some of the boozy syrup over the cream and berries.