“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” - Dr. William Butler, 17th century English writer
"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” - Emilie Buchwald, author
Every year in March, plump, rosy strawberries arrive in abundance at local grocery stores. They are no longer the firm, tasteless berries that are found in, say, January, when berries are picked nearly green in some faraway place and shipped to your town. But in early spring, they’re sweeter, juicier and ripe.
Every year at this time, when they show up again in their blushing perfection, I flash back in my mind to the years when I was very young, when my parents would take me to strawberry fields in North Carolina to pick the ripest, juiciest berries to bring home with us. Of course, because I was a preschooler, I ate more of the berries than I dropped into our basket, but my parents chuckled when they’d tell the story years later.
Strawberries also come to mind when I reflect upon a particular childhood book, one that I spent months trying to remember the name of. I’ve pictured a specific little ripe strawberry in my mind’s eye, drawn by some talented illustrator in the 1950s, pretty and perfect and being grown by a child for someone special. I just could not quite get that story to come completely back to my memory, though I know my parents had read it to me many times as a child.
I stumbled upon a children’s book at one of the many vintage shops I frequent, and a flood of memories washed over me when I saw the cover. It was a pink cover, and pictured was a little girl wearing a white tutu and toe shoes. It was called, fittingly, Little Ballerina. In my mind, this was a book that somehow related to the strawberry book, but how?
I looked at each page as if finding an old friend again, each one drawn so prettily by someone long ago. The story was about Carol, a little girl whose legs were weak (presumably from having suffered polio, though the book doesn’t say so.) Her pediatrician tells Carol and her mother that she should take ballet classes so that her legs could become strong again. She does, and she becomes a good little ballerina with strong legs. It’s a simple story, but what triggered my memory most were the pretty pictures. I remembered mom and dad reading this book to me dozens of times as I sat in their laps or as they sat beside my bed reading to me at night.
But as sweet as the book was, it wasn’t the book with the strawberry drawing. I just couldn’t get that story to come to the surface, still, after bringing home the ballerina book and looking through it, hoping to trigger more memories of books I’d read as a child.
And then finally, during an internet search, a picture floated up in the midst of all the pictures of books that I didn’t recognize. There it was. The picture of the sweet little strawberry.
The book, I finally learned, was called A Present for the Princess, and it was filled with more of the same kinds of beautiful drawings that had captured my young imagination in Little Ballerina. I was immediately swept back through the decades to those days when mom or dad would read the book to me again, telling me how the poor little boy didn’t have a present for the soon-to-arrive princess, so he planted a strawberry plant in his garden, and the scarecrow and the sun and the rain all conspired with him to grow the perfect strawberry for the princess. Of course, when she arrived at his home, he presented the luscious berry to her cradled in a verdant leaf, and she was very grateful for the gift.
Those memories are so much fun to think back on; I know I’m not the only one who has special memories of the books that were read to them as children. There is a specialness to books; the feel of the pages, the scent of the paper, the pictures for your eyes to admire and imagine with. I’m so grateful to have had parents who valued books, who took us to the library regularly, and who bought us books whenever possible... books like these have stayed with me for decades.
Well, for whatever reason, strawberries have been a common thread of happiness throughout my life. The childhood book and the trips to the strawberry fields, the strawberry pie at Morrison’s Cafeteria after church, the Dutch oven with strawberries on the side that I scorched spaghetti sauce in as a newlywed, and the strawberry jam that I made for my young children, all bring back happy, sometimes funny memories to me.
In that vein, here are two of my favorite strawberry recipes that I believe you will enjoy.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan (see tips, below.) Line bottom with parchment cut to fit, and butter parchment. Dust with flour, and tap out excess.
Combine sour cream, vanilla, zest, and juice. In a separate bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Beat butter and sugar with a mixer on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy. Add eggs and whites, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in sour cream mixture. Reduce speed to low, and beat in flour mixture until just combined. Transfer to pan, and smooth top.
Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then turn out cake onto rack to cool completely. (Cake can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature overnight.)
Tip: I used my 10-inch tart pan and the cake rose above the sides; I’m afraid that if you use a 9-inch cake pan you may have some overflow, so you might consider using a different pan, like a 9 by 9-inch brownie pan. If that’s not available, perhaps use a cupcake pan to make individual cakes.
For the strawberry sauce:
Hull and wash berries. Slice in half or quarters, if they’re very large. Place in saucepan over medium heat, and add sugar and lemon juice.
Stir to mix ingredients well. Simmer for seven minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Can be reheated if there are leftovers.
Combine strawberries and 1 cup sugar. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt butter in a 9×13-inch baking dish. Mix remaining 1 cup sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and milk together. Pour into dish on top of the butter; do not stir.
Top with the strawberry mixture, again, not stirring.
Bake for 45 minutes. Let cool for about 5 minutes and then sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over crust. Makes 8-10 servings.
Note: I think a cup of blueberries or blackberries would be a nice addition to this cobbler. It would be pretty, too!
When I served the cobbler with the scoop of ice cream, I drizzled a bit of the juice from the cobbler pan over the ice cream, which was pretty and very tasty.
I hope you enjoy these strawberry ideas as much as I do. While you’re waiting for the cake or cobbler to bake, perhaps you could read a book to a child, or find some story to immerse yourself in and stretch your imagination a bit today. Enjoy!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.
This article originally appeared on The Star: What Southern Folks Eat: On strawberries, happiness, and books