Just when I thought we’d get through winter scot-free, along comes spring frosts, lowering temperatures and yes, the need to wear socks. The other day I saw a man walking to work wearing a winter-ish coat and flip-flops. Not too sure what that was all about but it pretty much sums up the general feeling around here – confusion. Coat or no coat? Should I bring a scarf? Flats or boots? I was so looking forward to the harbingers of spring– strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus – at the market. Oh wishful thinking! The asparagus has made it’s initial showing but for Easter, I had to make due with grocery store strawberries. Weak in flavor and pale in color, they are never my favorite. Something had to be done to give them a little boost, so I turned to a neat little trick I learned last summer during my stagiaire in France.
I had arrived in the tiny town of La Cave in the afternoon, after a long flight and a lengthy and somewhat confusing drive. La Cave is two hours north of Toulouse on the southern tip of the Dordogne Valley and it should have been a relatively easy drive. Not so for this girl. When your location has a name, rather than a typical address, the GPS system doesn’t always cooperate. After a few misfires and rather vocal arguments with the system, I got myself on the right path, learned how to put the damn manual transmission in reverse (that was NOT easy) and got to where I needed to be, relaxing enough about halfway there to marvel at the passing scenery.
Waiting for me on the other end was a most delightful evening. The chef of Le Pont de L’Ouysse where we would be working, Stephane Chambon, had my chef, her husband and I over for a little welcome BBQ with his family. A cold glass of rosé was pressed into my hand, hors d’oeuvres and various snacks were placed on the table for our refreshment. I had to pinch myself as I looked out over the terrace to the valley and little hamlet of La Cave below. Giant langoustines and andouillette were grilling, salads and terrines were passed, the wine and conversation flowed freely. Oh the situations I find myself.
For dessert, a gorgeous bowl of juicy, impossibly red strawberries were served. It was the perfect ending to such a meal – simple yet bursting with flavor. A delightfully bright note to cap a perfect evening.
The next day in the restaurant’s pastry kitchen, I learned that a version of this dish was on the menu, jazzed up with a pretty quenelle of crème fraiche sorbet and a crunchy tuile. It was just as stunning in the setting of a Michelin starred restaurant as it was on the Chef’s terrace.
We started with the syrup, heating water and sugar in a slightly heavier than 1:1 ratio until dissolved. Next, handfuls of dried hibiscus flowers went in along with the zest of a few lemons. The potion was covered and put to rest in the cooler all day to extract all possible flavor. Before service, the mixture was strained and combined with tiny perfect strawberries. These berries were phenomenal to start – local, hand-picked impossibly perfect Mara strawberries from a local farmer – delicate, heady with an intoxicating fragrance and a deep red all the way through. Perfect. Later in the evening as the orders came in, the vibrantly ruby colored mixture was carefully spooned into shallow bowls, garnished and sent off into the night with a moist slice of a curious local sponge cake known as Mique. It was a close to a French version of strawberry shortcake as I think I’ll ever see.
Back home, I’ve found that not only is this little combo delicious but it can also pump up the flavor and color of some less than perfect commercial berries. It’s a trick I’ve been using now and again to get through this crazy spring.
Hibiscus flowers are easy to find in a Hispanic market – just look near the dried spices for “Flor de Jamaica”. An 8 ounce bag set me back about $3.99 and will make many batches of syrup. You can also find dried hibiscus at Whole Foods in the bulk spice section, though the flowers are more chopped than whole and more expensive too. You can also use hibiscus tea but make sure you read the label so you’re aware of what else is in that blend.
As for the berries, I particularly like how the flavors of strawberries and hibiscus work together but any red berry would be lovely. If they seem a bit dull in flavor, which is never ideal but it happens, whip up a batch of this syrup and not only will they be more flavorful but the color will be enhanced. It really is a nifty little trick.
I’ve used the syrup soaked berries on just about everything – with a slice of cheesecake, along with some freshly made ricotta, on top of my morning oatmeal. At several events of late, we’ve been serving it on top of a light buttermilk panna cotta. They’re great in crepes with some whipped cream and delicious on top of ice cream. There’s no end to the possibilities.
The syrup, on it’s own, is great for cocktails. Add a little to prosecco or another sparkling wine for a different spin on a Kir. I’ve mixed a splash into a vodka soda for a very refreshing cocktail. Hibiscus lemonade anyone? How about adding a little to some sparkling water for a nice summer cooler? The options are never-ending and with summer approaching, why not have a big batch of this on hand?
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: AN ACE UP YOUR SLEEVE. First off, berries in this syrup are just gorgeous. A real feast for the eyes – richly colored a deep ruby-red and simply stunning. The flavor is bright, unique and so much more interesting than just a simple toss of sugar. It’s a great little secret to have in your back pocket if you’re stuck with less than perfect grocery store berries. It makes everything just a little more special.
STRAWBERRIES IN HIBISCUS SYRUP
Makes about 2 cups syrup
1 cup water
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup dried hibiscus flowers (flor de Jamaica) ½ ounce
zest of one lemon, yellow part only, cut in wide strips with a vegetable peeler
1 quart strawberries, stemmed and quartered
- Make a simple syrup by bringing the water and sugar to a boil until the sugar dissolves.
- Add the dried hibiscus flowers and the lemon zest; let steep until syrup cools to room temperature.
- Cover and store in the refrigerate overnight.
- Strain out the hibiscus flowers and lemon zest, add the strawberries to the syrup no longer than 2 hours before you plan on serving.
- The syrup keeps, without the berries, for up to 2 months in the refrigerator. With the berries, about 2-3 days refrigerated.