Way back before the cantaloupes had even thought about becoming ripe, back in June, Xanna learned something shocking.
It was strawberry time and she’d been reading in her almanac about June’s full moon, which is called the Strawberry Moon. At the end of the article was a “fun fact”: “Strawberries are NOT berries, but aggregate accessory fruits.”
That made zero sense. Strawberry has ‘berry’ in its name. How could it not be a berry? And what in the world is an aggregate accessory fruit? It sounded more like a crime than something good to eat.
Of all the different kinds of berries in the garden, she loved strawberries the best. Finding out they weren’t berries was weird.
Xanna looked up strawberry in one of her parents’ gardening books. She wanted to know if it were true. After several minutes of studying diagrams of flower anatomy, she was drowning in strange words she’d never heard before, like stigmas and styles and carpels and cortexes.
But the answer was, it was true: strawberries aren’t berries. The dots that look like seeds on the outside of a strawberry aren’t seeds. They’re achenes (uh KEENS). The achenes are the fruits of the strawberry and every strawberry has about 200 of them. The red, tasty part the achenes are attached to is not the fruit, but accessory tissue.
Whatever it’s called, Xanna thought, it’s delicious. Just reading about strawberries made her crave a bowlful.
They’d planted three kinds of them the year before. There were Chandler strawberries, which were firm and perfectly red through and through. They had an intense, classic strawberry flavor and they put out a big crop all at once.
They also planted Seascape, a day-neutral kind which meant they produced fewer berries at a time but over a longer season, and Sweet Charlie, another June-bearer like the Chandlers.
The Sweet Charlies were Xanna’s favorite of the favorite: big, honey-sweet, and the plants were covered up in berries, uh, . . . aggregate accessory fruit.
When the strawberries began to ripen, the first ones were eaten straight off the plants while Xanna and her little sisters stood between the rows. Once there were enough to begin picking them by the basketful, her mother washed and sliced them up, gently mashed them with a potato masher, and left them to stew in their own juices beneath a small snowcap of sugar while they made shortcake.
The shortcake began with a blend of soft wheat flour and a little baking powder and salt, blended with slices of cold butter. Pernille gave the pastry blender to the girls to take turns pressing the rigid blades into the pieces of butter in an up-and-down motion through the flour mixture until the bits of butter were so tiny you couldn’t see any big lumps. This was harder to do than it looked when their mother did it. They pressed and pressed until their arms were tired and the handle of the pastry blender hurt their palms.
After the butter was finally mixed in, they poured buttermilk into a well in the center of the flour and stirred with a fork. This part was easy. As soon as the dough began to clump, Pernille patted it into a ball and rolled it out gently on the floured countertop. The girls always wanted to help with this.
“Nice and thick,” she said. “And pick up the rolling pin when you get to the edges. If you let it roll off the sides it makes the dough too thin.”
Using a rolling pin was a very attractive activity and the girls fought over who got to roll the dough more. Sometimes their mother had to take the clattering pin away from them before the poor shortcake became a casualty of war.
Then of course everybody wanted to use the biscuit cutter to cut the dough into rounds. They took reluctant turns.
“Close together!” Pernille directed. “And start at the edge, not the middle. We want to cut out as much of the dough on the first roll-out as we can. Every time we have to gather it up and roll it out again the dough gets tougher.”
But it’s hard to cut carefully when you’re trying to cut out as many as you can so your sisters don’t get as big of a turn, so the dough usually had to be re-rolled several times and some of the shortcakes looked funny.
They were brushed with melted butter and put into the oven. The strawberries sat getting juicier and sweeter. Pernille got ready for the whipped cream. The whisk and the bowl went into the freezer for a few minutes to get very cold.
“The colder the better to make whipped cream. You don’t want to warm up the cream by putting it into a warm bowl,” she told them.
Once the (somewhat irregular) shortcakes were slightly puffed, with crisped, butter-gold edges and soft, pillowy insides, they came out of the oven to cool. The girls snuck hot flakes of shortcake from some of the more “freeform” cakes while no one was looking.
Pernille took the deep, round-bottomed metal bowl from the freezer and poured in the chilled cream. “Get out a nutmeg and grate just a little bit of it for me,” she said to Xanna. “. . . without grating your knuckles.”
The whisk made a clacking sound against the stainless steel as Pernille began to whip the cream.
Xanna held a nutmeg tightly between her fingers and thumb and carefully rubbed it back and forth against the finest grating surface of the box grater and let the powdered nutmeg fall onto the counter top. She held the nutmeg to her nose and breathed in its piney, warm smell. She gathered up a pinch and sprinkled it over the cream which was beginning to look like soft foam. The sound made by the whisk became more and more muted as the cream thickened.
“Time for the vanilla,” Pernille told her. Xanna poured in about a teaspoon and her mother continued to whisk. “This doesn’t need any sugar,” her mother declared. “The strawberries are sweet enough.”
When the cream mounded on the spoon but before it clung desperately to it, Pernille stopped whipping. On each of five separate plates she split a shortcake and piled on a lavish amount of strawberries and whipped cream. The strawberry juice started to soak into the slightly warm shortcakes and the cream became tinged with sweet, pink berry.
“Xanna, run out and get some mint sprigs! We need some green.”
Xanna brought back a bouquet of the tender tips of peppermint and the girls tucked one into each of the mounds of whipped cream.
It was so hard to eat just one shortcake they each had two.
Once the plants were producing more than they could eat fresh, it was time for strawberry jam. Pernille sterilized pint canning jars by boiling them in the big canning pot and fished them out with a large fork. She had canning tongs and they were much more suitable, but because they were also handy for grabbing toys and grabbing sisters they were nowhere to be found.
“Find the canning tongs!” she called. “No jam until you find the tongs!”
Nora and Imogen washed the strawberries in the big colander and let them drain while Pernille and Xanna pinched off the caps. Once their thumbnails began to throb, they switched to paring knives. As soon as all the berries were capped, Pernille sliced them and put them into the big, heavy-bottomed soup pot.
She boiled berries, honey, and pectin together until they were cooked. To test for gel, she put a small spoonful on a chilled plate. If the surface of the cooled jam wrinkled when the plate was tilted, it was set.
“It’s going to be more of a syrup,” she concluded, when the cooked berries ran across the plate. “But it’ll taste good anyway.”
She ladled the bubbling hot jam into wide-mouth pint jars and screwed on the lids and rings.
“Canning tongs, please!” she called down the hall.
Nora came running.
“It was under the couch.”
Pernille picked off some hair-laced dust mice from the tongs and lowered the jars into the boiling water bath where they shuddered and chattered for ten minutes until they were sterilized. Again using the canning tongs, she drew each one carefully out and set it on the counter.
Each ping of the lid as it sealed felt like a victory. Xanna tried to count the pings so she could confirm they had all battened down tight, safe and ready to store, but she lost count. When she remembered to come and check, they were all sealed. She smoothed her finger over the warm tops of the lids which were bowed in slightly, tight as metal drums. The berries had turned deeper red as they cooked, and the honey gave them a gloss she could see even inside the jars.
A trace of white foam laced the top like melting frost.
Tonight the moon is new which means you can barely see it. It’s my least favorite moon phase.
When we pick a lot of strawberries we make strawberry shortcake for dessert. I help whip the whipped cream and it takes like an hour. I told Mom we should get the kind in a can but she said it’s better this way. It’s pretty good.
My sisters are really bad at cutting out shortcakes.
They leave too much space in-between AND they make a giant mess.
Did you know a strawberry isn’t a berry but a cucumber is?!
Copyright Daisy Siskin 2015