I went to our large produce market last weekend not because I needed anything different from what my corner produce stand has, but because I wanted the convenience of fish and produce in the same location. Remember last weekend’s fish fest? I was perfectly happy striving along with my fennel, potatoes, peppers, artichokes, lemons and herbs. There is so much more I need to do with just these selections. But, I went to the big market and look what they had: vine ripened, and some cute and tart unripened, tomatoes, Romanesco broccoli, which on its own could be a reason to move to Italy, and Narcissus, which are such a spring harbinger, but boy do they stink up the house. I’m finally ready to admit that.
We have had a dribble of strawberries already, but being a seasoned Tunisian resident, I’ve lived here over a whole year now, I didn’t bite on the first buzz-bomb strawberry that caught my eye. No, I know we will still have some strawberries in May and I remember making strawberry jam in March last year, so I was waiting. I come from a strawberry-fulfilled county in Washington State. I know, however, that the first strawberries you see in June are from California and taste like sheetrock. You have to wait until the local berries are almost spoiled before you can get the really good ones. Don’t get me started on the year my county was practically dumping strawberries into dumpsters they had such a bumper crop and our local Trader Joe’s had a pyramid of California strawberries in their store. I didn't go in that store for about two years after that.
We live by local harvests here. Can you imagine something so pure and wonderful? When you see strawberries in the market, you can buy them and they will be sweet and full of the tastes of earth and sunshine. I still can’t believe it.
I am a big-time strawberry shortcake devotee, but only if every ingredient is homemade and real. For these gentle, hand-raised strawberries, I made a special, but wholesome, pavlova, bearing the warm flavor of brown sugar. The pavlova layers were a little crisp and chewy on the outside and marshmallowy on the inside. Piled with layers of whipped crème fraiche, and strawberries, it was a winter delight, especially as it was pouring rain outside.
Brown Sugar Pavlova with Strawberries
adapted from Gourmet Grilling, 2011
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
1 cup superfine granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp. distilled white vinegar
3/4 cup egg whites (5-6 large eggs) at room temperature for 30 minutes
2 1/2 lb strawberries, trimmed and quartered
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 1/3 cup creme fraiche
Preheat oven to 275 degrees F, rack in middle. Lightly butter 3 (8-inch) round cake pans and line with rounds of parchment paper. Dust sides of pans with confectioners' sugar, knocking out excess.
Pulse superfine sugar, brown sugar, and cornstarch in a food processor until well combined.
Stir together vanilla and vinegar in a small bowl.
Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt , using an electric mixer at medium speed until they hold soft peaks. Increase speed to medium-high and add sugar mixture 1 tablespoon at a time. After all sugar has been added, beat 1 minute more. Add vinegar mixture, then beat at high speed until meringue is glossy and holds stiff peaks, about 5 minutes. Spoon meringue into pans (about 2 1/2 cups per pan) and smooth tops.
Bake until meringues have a crisp crust and feel dry to the touch, about 1 hour (insides will still be moist and marshmallow-like).
Turn oven off and prop door open slightly, using a wooden spoon if necessary. Cool meringues in oven 1 hour.
Run knife along sides of cake pans and carefully turn meringues out of pans. Carefully peel off parchment (meringues will be fragile and may crack further). Carefully turn right side up.
Toss berries with sugar and let stand at room temperature until ready to use (up to 1 hour).
Beat creme fraiche using an electric mixer until it just holds soft peaks. Put 1 meringue on a serving plate and spread 1/3 of whipped cream over it. Spoon 1/3 of fruit (with juice) over top. Repeat layering with remaining meringues, cream, and fruit.