Sunday morning dawned hot, at least by Great Lakes standards. It was in the mid 80s by 9 a.m. and 90 degrees by the time I got to the strawberry fields on western Erie County. The road to the fields is dusty, so you need to crawl along at less than 10 miles per hour or you will choke on the dust – even with the windows rolled up. My black VW was more khaki in color by the time I pulled off to the picking fields.
Eight-quart basket in hand, the Mason Farms employee directed me to my row and then walked me to the pink flag. You pick between the row and move the flag to your final spot when the basket is full. As I followed him, the field smelled of strawberry jam. Not just sweet smell of strawberries, but of the more intense flavor of jam as the berries simmer on the stovetop.
Filling the basket can take anywhere from 20 minutes to and hour and a half, depending how late in the season it is and how picked over the fields. The fields are irrigated, so the fruit is still abundant. Some years, when the spring is late and the rains are frequent, the berries are big, but lack punch. The smell alone told me these berries were full of sugar, a guess that was confirmed by multiple taste testings along the row.
But unlike my first pick, these berries were very mature. Normally, you want to hear a snap as you pull a ripe berry from the vine with its green cap intact. These separated easily from the vine, coming away almost silently without their little hats. This means that they won’t keep as long, and need to consumed or cooked quickly.
This isn’t hard. The difficult part is finding which recipe to make, especially with the temperatures pushing my tolerance for turning on the oven.
Bread puddings are very simple and don’t require much work, or oven time if you bake it in a muffin tin. My sister-in-law Jenna sent me a link to Ree Drummond’s Lemon Bread Pudding, which was a big hit in her family. She skipped the bourbon whipped cream, and so did I. Instead, I used plain whipped cream and topped it with macerated strawberries – strawberries that have had about 20 minutes to sit in some sugar or other sweetener, such as honey, and create a fresh sauce.
If you make this in a muffin tin, you can freeze the extra bread puddings and serve any time. I split the top off, added whipped cream and strawberries for a riff on a strawberry shortcake. I like brioche for this bread pudding, but you can use any dense bread, such as a loaf of Bill’s Italian Bread.
Lemon Bread Pudding
1 loaf bread, crust removed, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
Sugar for sprinkling on top of muffins
Allow bread to stale overnight or toast it. Place in a large bowl once staled or toasted.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 1 muffin tin (12 large muffins).
Beat eggs and add half-and-half, sugar, lemon juice and zest. Mix to dissolve sugar. You don’t want a pile of sugar sitting at the bottom of this bowl. Pour over bowl with bread. Use your hands or a spatula to make sure all of the bread becomes covered with the milky egg mixture. Give it a couple of stirs.
Pack equal amounts into each muffin cup. Sprinkle with sugar, if desired. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and allow to cool long enough so that you can handle them. These are best served warm. If you choose to freeze them, defrost and then warm up in the microwave. Be careful not to overheat in the microwave (I like 15 to 25 seconds for one, but it depends on the power of your oven). Cut off the top and serve with whipped cream.
Salads are always easy and I love pairing spiced pecans with strawberries and spinch or a mix of greens. You can make your own spiced pecans or walnuts with this recipe:
Skillet Spiced Nuts
½ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons spicy seasoning mix, such as one with ancho or cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups unsalted nuts (pecans, walnuts, or almonds)
2 tablespoons butter
Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. Coat with cooking spray. You will use this to cool the nuts.
Mix the sugar, salt and seasonings in a small bowl.
In a large cast iron or nonstick skillet, toast the nuts over medium heat until you begin to smell toasted nut, about 4 minutes. Add the butter and stir to melt and coat the nuts. Stir in sugar mixture and stir to coat the nuts. Keep stiring until the sugar melts, about 2 to 3 minutes. When it has, remove the nuts to the prepared pan and spread out to cool.
Do not put into a container until totally cool. They should keep for about 3 weeks.