Summer desserts: Sweet ways to use local strawberries

Macerating strawberries releases their juices and sweetens them

Macerating strawberries releases their juices and sweetens them while preserving their fresh flavor and texture. (Credit: Eve Bishop)

I usually make strawberry shortcake for my older daughter's birthday the first week in June. But this year, she wanted a chocolate layer cake, and we're waiting until the middle of the month to enjoy her favorite dessert. After a long, chilly spring -- but better late than never -- local strawberries are just arriving.

Strawberries have been a Long Island spring crop for hundreds of years. Archaeological records show that Native Americans enjoyed wild berries to mark the season. The Shinnecock Cultural Center in Southampton holds a yearly strawberry festival, maintaining the tribe's cultural traditions related to the crop. With the advent of commercial farming and railroad refrigeration cars, Long Island's cultivated berries became prized in the city and beyond for their sweetness.

Look for berries that are relatively small in size (indicating they haven't been pumped up by fertilizers), ruby red throughout (because they've been picked when ripe), fragrant and slightly yielding. Once you get them home, don't refrigerate them. They should be eaten within a day or two of purchase, before they start to over-ripen on your countertop.

Getting your hands on local berries after a very cool spring may be more difficult than preparing a luscious strawberry dessert. Once you have them, they're best enjoyed uncooked, with just a little sugar added for sweetness and to coax out some of their liquid. To macerate berries, simply slice them, sprinkle them with sugar and let them stand for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the juices are syrupy.

It's hard to improve upon perfection. But certain ingredients seem to enhance the already exquisite flavor of lightly handled berries. Everyone has a favorite. Choose a complementary flavor combination from the following list to make a simple strawberry dessert to suit your taste:

1. Strawberries and cream: Serve over sweetened whipped cream, sour cream or crème fraîche, with or without shortcakes.

2. Strawberries and vanilla: Spoon your strawberries over best-quality vanilla ice cream. Crumble some vanilla shortbread cookies over the berries for some buttery crunch.

3. Strawberries and chocolate: Moisten slices of chocolate pound cake or chocolate angel food cake with macerated berries. Drizzle with hot fudge.

4. Strawberries and white chocolate: Whisk together 1/3 cup heavy cream and 4 ounces chopped white chocolate in a small saucepan over low heat until smooth. Whip another 1/2 cup cream and a tablespoon of sugar and fold into white chocolate mixture. Spoon into bowls and top with macerated berries.

5. Strawberries and lemon: Cut store-bought puff pastry into circles and bake until golden. Top with lemon curd and macerated strawberries.

6. Strawberries and almond: Layer crushed amaretti cookies, macerated strawberries, and whipped cream in parfait glasses.

7. Strawberries and coconut: Rice pudding made with coconut milk, served warm or cold, is even better when topped with macerated strawberries.

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GREEK YOGURT PANNA COTTAS WITH MACERATED STRAWBERRIES

For breakfast, I like macerated berries over Greek yogurt. It is such a great combination of sweet, tart and juicy that I used it in the following dessert.

1 envelope unflavored gelatin (2 1/4 teaspoons)

2 tablespoons cold water

1 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar (divided)

2 cups plain Greek-style yogurt

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 pound strawberries, washed, stemmed and sliced

1. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water; let stand until softened, 5 minutes. In a small saucepan, bring the cream and 1/3 cup sugar to a simmer. Remove from heat and stir in the gelatin until dissolved.

2. Place yogurt and vanilla in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth. Slowly whisk in the cream mixture. Pour into 6 (1/2-cup) ramekins and refrigerate until set, at least 3 hours and up to 1 day.

3. Combine the strawberries and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in a medium bowl. Let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes.

4. Run a knife around the inside of each ramekin. Set a plate on each ramekin and invert each panna cotta onto a plate; gently shake to release them.

5. Spoon strawberries and juices on top of and around each panna cotta. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.