Sweetness of Spring: Strawberry Clafoutis
If the calendar is to be trusted, spring has now officially commenced. Depending on where you live, it may seem like this fresh new season has forgotten its yearly appointment, or perhaps it is stuck in traffic somewhere, or it has hit "snooze" one too many times. We just have to be a little patient: Spring will make its bright appearance in its own time.
And since no fruit announces spring as beamingly as strawberries, let's while away the wait by pondering what can be made with the first sprightly rubies when they hit the market stalls. Gobbling them up straight from the box is an excellent option, but if you'd like to enroll them in a little baking and concentrate their jam-like flavor, I can suggest a strawberry clafoutis.
Clafoutis is the epitome of the French grandmotherly dessert: unpretentious, easy to make, and blissfully comforting. The fluffy custard, light as a cloud and studded with fruit, hails from the Limousin region in the heart of France, where each family has its own well-guarded recipe. Clafoutis is most classically made with cherries -- leaving the pits in for maximum flavor and a nice jaw workout -- but it will gladly open its arms to any other fruit, and in this case, strawberries.
An introductory nugget of horticultural trivia: These plump and luminously red berries belong to the rose family. Their delicate taste and delightful scent, sweet and acidulated like candy, make them an infallible crowd-pleaser. (Well, almost infallible: Since a small portion of the population is allergic to them, its a good idea to ask your guests about it ahead of time.)
While you may be able to find strawberries year-round, their peak season runs from April to June -- with a brief reappearance in September -- and this is when you'll experience them at their juicy best, and at their cheapest, too. Choose small and deeply fragrant strawberries, firm but not rock-hard, with their green little collars still attached, and no sign of blemish. If you have access to a farmer's market, it's best to buy your berries there: They will be freshly picked, and if you wear your brightest smile you'll be able to taste before you buy.
Since strawberries are usually sold by the pint, this clafoutis recipe may leave you with an extra cup. That's never much of a problem, and I'm sure you don't need instructions to dip the berries in a little sugar (or better yet, some melted chocolate) and pop them happily into your or someone else's mouth. But if you're looking for other ideas, I have also included a recipe for strawberry coulis. It is a breeze to make and will work wonders on ice cream or plain yogurt, with a chocolate tart, a cheesecake or simply drizzled on a thick, buttered slice of fresh bread. Heaven, I tell you.
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