In the early weeks of summer, farm stands beckon the cook with asparagus, spinach, shelling peas and fennel. It's easy to imagine whipping up salads, pasta dishes, pizzas and grilled side dishes with whatever you might bring home. Improvising is a joy.
Starting in mid-July, when blueberries, raspberries, peaches and nectarines begin to arrive, it is the baker's turn to get excited. But successful baking requires planning and precision. Improvising is usually a mistake. So it's good to have a few go-to summer dessert recipes that will work with any fruit you might find. Keep a few staples on hand and you can turn out a variety of summer desserts with whatever looks freshest and smells sweetest at the market.
If you've got brown sugar, nuts, flour and butter, you can make a fruit crisp. Toss 4 cups of fruit (slice peaches or nectarines thinly or use whole berries) with 1/3 cup brown sugar and a tablespoon of cornstarch. Spoon it into an 8-inch-square baking dish and top with a mixture of 1/4 cup sliced almonds, 1/2 cup flour, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and 4 tablespoons of butter cut into bits. Bake the crisp in a 425-degree oven until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden, about 30 minutes.
Or try a biscuit cobbler: Toss 4 cups of fruit with 1/3 cup of sugar and a tablespoon of cornstarch. Spoon it into an 8-inch-square pan. Mix a batch of baking powder biscuits made with 3 tablespoons of butter, 1 cup of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, a teaspoon of sugar, a pinch of salt and 6 tablespoons of milk. Drop the biscuit dough in spoonfuls over the fruit. Sprinkle with more sugar, and bake in a 425-degree oven until the fruit is bubbling and the biscuits are browned, about 30 minutes.
For a rustic yet sophisticated fruit dessert in a country-French style, choose a fruit and custard tart made with store-bought puff pastry.
It's worthwhile to seek out puff pastry made with butter (I buy the Dufour brand, which is sold at many gourmet and specialty stores). Its flavor is far superior to that of pastry made with vegetable oil or shortening. Keep it in the freezer so you're prepared when the need arises. Defrost it for a few hours in the refrigerator, and then let it sit on the countertop for 15 minutes so it's cold but not too hard to roll.
Pouring your custard through a fine strainer will give you a smooth filling. Depending on how sweet your fruit is (taste it beforehand), you can sift a little or a lot of confectioners' sugar on top of the baked tart before serving.
BLUEBERRY CUSTARD TART
Puff pastry gets soggy quickly, so it's best to eat this tart on the day that it's baked, preferably while it's still warm from the oven. Put it in the oven when you're sitting down to dinner, and it will be ready to eat as you are clearing the dishes.
1 (8-ounce) piece all-butter puff pastry, chilled
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups blueberries, washed and picked over
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
1. Spray a 10-inch tart pan with removable bottom with nonstick cooking spray. On a lightly floured countertop, roll out the puff pastry to fit the pan. Place it in the pan, gently pressing it into the corners and up the sides. Roll over the top of the pan with a rolling pin to cut away excess pastry. Prick the bottom of the pastry with the tines of a fork. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 week.
2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large measuring cup, whisk together the eggs, cream, vanilla, and sugar to dissolve sugar.
3. Unwrap tart pan and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Arrange blueberries in bottom of tart pan. Pour custard mixture through a fine strainer and over blueberries. Bake until pastry is puffed and golden and custard is puffed and just set, 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for 10 minutes before removing sides from pan. Dust with confectioners' sugar before slicing and serving warm. Makes 6 to 8 servings.