I know it's summer when the strawberries start tasting sweet.
Strawberries arrive in April, sometimes late March because #climatechange. Gingerly, quietly, they dot grocery store aisles and farmer's market stalls. Firm (a little too firm), red (but not red enough), with scraggly green mop tops. They add a welcome splash of color to the fruit section, foreshadowing warmer weather.
But they aren't sweet, not yet.
It's tempting to buy them then because you are so ready for winter to be over, so ready to transition. But wait, just wait.
Advice is easier to give than to take, so of course I buy strawberries the second I see them at Shopping Garden, our little Stoke Newington grocery store at the southern tip of Clissold Park. I'm no match for the yearning of summer. Each year, I hope it comes sooner, as if the summer sun will shine away all my problems—or better yet, burn them off. Can you imagine the sun burning your ex into an ashy crisp? One can dream!
Each week I buy a pint, lamenting at how expensive they are (£5.99!) and rationalising that they'll get cheaper as they sweeten and supply grows. I know I'm still wasting money because these early strawberries taste so mediocre that I only eat one and let the rest decay in my fridge until I throw them into the compost. Each week, I know they're not ready yet, and I know I cannot just will summer to start any earlier than nature wants it to. I just really love summer, and I really love strawberries.
Strawberries have always felt very American to me—and they are. Native to North America, they became popularised by the British colonists who snagged them from Indigenous peoples (no surprise) and took them back to England to cultivate further. Along the way, they became a marker for class as the royal family enjoyed eating strawberries and cream so much that they damn near trademarked it as their own.
Today, 75 percent of American strawberries are grown in California. As someone who spent most of their life there, they were a staple of my summers. That is, unless I spent the summer in India, which I did for several years throughout my childhood and young adulthood. In India, I realised how precious strawberries were.
Until 2010, strawberries were not successfully grown in India—the weather is simply too hot and strawberries thrive in temperate, stable temperatures like California. I remember asking my mom once how to say strawberry in Hindi, and she had no idea, nor did any of my aunties in Delhi. She'd never seen them growing up, much less eaten them, which felt so strange to the California in me. How do you know that summer has started? I asked, baffled and convinced that strawberries were the only possible way to kick off the season. My mom laughed. Easy, mangoes!
And as much as I love mangoes (have you ever met a South Asian who doesn't?), I guess I'll always be American too. To me, mangoes signify India, but strawberries will always mean summer.
Oh, and I finally learned how to say strawberry in Hindi (thank you Internet): It's हिसालू! (pronounced hiss-AAH-loo)
When strawberries are at their peak juiciness and sweetness, I want them in a sturdy pastry to balance them out. Here, that sturdiness comes from alternative grains, which is how I bake most of my desserts. Spelt and semolina are easy to find, and using them makes this a torte, not a cake. I'll discuss tortes in next week's newsletter, but trust me—they're good.
Spelt Strawberry Torte
- 50g (1/4c) brown sugar
- 100g (1/2c) white sugar
- 113g (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temp
- 130g (1c) spelt flour
- 85g (1/2c) semolina
- 6g (1tsp) baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 2 large eggs, room temp
- Splash of vanilla extract
- Zest from 1 grapefruit
- 1 pint of strawberries, sliced in half
- Turbinado sugar for brushing
- Honey for brushing
- Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the sugars and butter on medium speed for 2-3 minutes, until light and fluffy.
- In the meantime, line an 8" or 9" pan with baking paper and spray the bottom and sides.
- Add the flours, baking powder, salt, vanilla, zest, and eggs to the stand mixer and mix on low speed until everything is evenly combined. The batter will be thick.
- Scoop the batter into the prepared pan, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly to the edges.
- Arrange the halved strawberries on top of the batter. Do NOT push them in—the batter will rise and cover them on their own.
- Sprinkle the entire cake with turbinado sugar, and bake for 30-40 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Microwave a few tablespoons of honey until the honey is loose and warm. While the cake is still hot, brush the entire top (including the berries) with the warm honey. Let it sit for an additional ten minutes. Slice and serve with crème fraîche.