Strawberry Festival

strawberries

Every year on the first weekend in June, my dad would take my sister and me to the Strawberry Festival. This was in the ’70s, in the wilds of central New Jersey.

Well, technically it was suburban New Jersey, just up the hill from our house and down the road from the Dairy Queen. But there were still plenty of meadows and farms all around us in those days, and in early June that meant strawberries.

The festival was hosted by one of the local civic associations–I don’t remember which one–and it was held under a big tent in a parking lot on Rte. 518. We would stand in line with our plastic bowl and fork, with people we knew and didn’t know, and wait our turn to be served. It was assembly line service. First would come a slice of angel food cake–a generous wedge, as I remember–followed by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The strawberries were the crowning glory–small and fragrant and red beyond red. They stained the cake and our fingers with their juice and made violent streaks in the pools of melting ice cream. We went home happy, with sticky hands and faces.

Time passed and something happened to strawberries. They got big. Really big. They started turning up out of season, in plastic clamshell packages in the grocery store. When you bit into them they tasted like nothing; inside they were white and cottony, not red and juicy. Maybe that’s why people started dipping them in chocolate. I buy those strawberries on occasion; I bought them to decorate my panna cotta a few weeks ago. They are a decent garnish but their flavor is always disappointing.

That’s why right now is one of my favorite times of year. It’s strawberry season. Farmers’ markets here in Virginia are brimming with strawberries, and pretty soon they’ll be back in New Jersey, too. The other day I made homemade strawberry soda for my kids, while they’re still kids because–talk about time passing–they have only a few kid years left.

I made something for grownups, too. Last year, during a day trip to the top of the Gran Sasso d’Italia mountain range, in Abruzzo, we stopped to eat arrosticini at La Baita della Sceriffa with our friend Marcello. We capped off our open-air lunch with a shot (or two or three) of house made liqueurs. One of them was crema alla fragola (strawberry cream). It was rich and strong and infused with the flavor of ripe strawberries. I’ve been wanting to make it ever since. But I had to wait, of course, for strawberry season.

Makes 3 (500 ml) bottles

Crema alla Fragola (Strawberry Cream Liqueur)

If you have never made homemade liqueur before, you'll be surprised (not to mention delighted) at how easy it is. To get maximum strawberry flavor, you need to use fresh, perfectly ripe, in-season strawberries. Sorry, but supermarket strawberries just won't do. Depending on how strong you want your liqueur, you can use either grain alcohol (such as Everclear) or vodka. I've used both. I used to use shelf-stable cream and milk, available at Trader Joe's and elsewhere, but have since changed to using fresh with fine results. This recipe is adapted from a recipe on Giallo Zafferano.

Ingredients

  • 1 quart ripe strawberries, hulled
  • 2 1/2 cups flavorless vodka or alcohol (you may want to use less if you're using grain alcohol)
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 packets powdered vanilla (such as Bertolini or Paneangeli, available at many Italian delis) or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 3 clean 500-ml bottles

Instructions

Place the whole, hulled strawberries in a glass container or jug large enough to contain them and the vodka. Pour the vodka over the strawberries and cap with a lid so that no air can get in or out. Set the container on the counter and let the strawberries steep in the vodka for at least 24 hours, preferably 2 to 3 days. Be sure to shake the container a couple of times a day to mix things up. (Within a day or two you will notice that the liquid has turned a beautiful clear red and the strawberries have turned pale and anemic looking.)

Strain the strawberry-infused vodka through a fine-mesh sieve lined with damp cheesecloth into a clean container. Don't press down on the strawberries our the liquid will turn cloudy. Discard the strawberries.

In a large saucepan, stir together the cream, milk and sugar. Cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture just comes to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat and immediately stir in the vanilla. Let the mixture cool to room temperature. Strain the cooled cream mixture through a fine-mesh sieve lined with damp cheesecloth into the container with the strawberry-infused vodka. Gently stir the mixture with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula.

Using a funnel, pour the liqueur into the 3 clean bottles and cap them tightly with corks or bottle stoppers. Refrigerate until well chilled before serving. Store the liqueur in the refrigerator or, if you don't plan to consume it within a week or two, in the freezer.

* P.S. Speaking of freezing, strawberries freeze beautifully, so next time you're at the farmers' market get a couple of extra quarts. Hull them and spread them out on a rimmed baking sheet. Freeze until solid and then transfer them to freezer storage bags and pop them back into the freezer.

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26 Responses to Strawberry Festival

  1. Adri May 13, 2013 at 12:20 am #

    Oh my, but you have captured my heart and my palate with this one. It is the best of all possible worlds – luscious strawberries, cream and alcohol. What could possibly be better?

    I so enjoy the fruits and specialties of the various festivals. It seems to me they are always superior to what one finds in the markets. Here in southern California we have the Strawberry Festival, and the berries there are like no others. Their flavor is intense and so saturated, they seem a breed apart. The good news is the festival is next weekend, and less than an hour’s drive from us up right up the coast. I think we will go and then come home and make this. Thanks, Domenica!

    • Domenica May 13, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

      Wow ~ perfect timing, eh Adri? It’s good to know that there are still strawberry festivals around. Enjoy the season.

  2. Laura (Tutti Dolci) May 13, 2013 at 12:21 am #

    Gorgeous strawberries, it’s my favorite time of year!

    • Domenica May 13, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

      Me too, Laura…until apricot season…and sour cherry season…and so on.

  3. Barbara | Creative Culinary May 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    A woman after my own heart with this one Domenica. I’m with you on strawberries (and tomatoes for that matter). Out of season they are just so awful that I wait, not patiently at all, for this magical time of year. We’ll start seeing local strawberries in a couple of weeks; we’re about a month behind other regions ‘up here’ and I’m ready. I’m also making this liqueur…can not wait!

    • Domenica May 13, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

      Barb ~ yes, right up your alley, cocktail queen! Enjoy.

  4. Wendy Read May 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    I grew up in Central New Jersey! Living in Florida our season starts in December and ends in April 🙂 I am spoiled for strawberries many months of the year. The Plant City Strawberry Festival is the one to celebrate here locally. I am pinnning this to make for NEXT year, it looks so gorgeous.

    • Domenica May 13, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

      Thank you Wendy! How are Florida strawberries? The only ones I know are the supermarket kind. But I imagine there must be some good local ones in season. Where did you grow up in central New Jersey? I used to cover parts of central New Jersey for the Home News about two lifetimes ago…

  5. Lizthechef May 13, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    Wow, what a creative recipe – I would love to try it…I grew up around Jersey strawberries too. Our local Carlsbad berries are an equal match but there is nothing like a Jersey tomato – even here in So CAL.

    • Domenica May 13, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

      Liz, I am so with you on the tomatoes. The tomatoes here in Virginia just don’t compare. My folks are still in NJ so I always make sure to bring back a haul of tomatoes when I visit them. And corn. Jersey corn!

  6. elisa May 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    Now, that’s my kind of dessert! (my husband liked the avatar of Giallo Zafferano’s blogger…). Thank you for the wonderful recipe!

    • Domenica May 13, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

      Prego cara. Enjoy.

  7. Laney May 13, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    You’re so lucky to have strawberries at your market already! We have to wait just a bit longer in New England – thanks for the warm up to strawberry season and all the great ideas…especially an alcoholic one:)

    • Domenica May 13, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

      My pleasure, Laney, and hang in there. They’re coming. BTW, in addition to strawberry sodas, I made strawberry floats for the kids over the weekend. Strawberry syrup, fizzy water, vanilla ice cream. It was awesome. I’m making another batch of syrup this week.

  8. Domenica May 13, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Folks I wanted to pass along a question that my friend Cathy asked on Twitter. She wondered why I used shelf-stable milk and cream in the liqueur recipe. Mainly I did it because that’s what was called for in the original recipe from which I was working. Also, I happened to find shelf-stable cream at Trader Joe’s the other day and was curious about it. I have made crema di limoncello (limoncello with cream) in the past using fresh cream and milk and it has worked fine. So I don’t actually think the shelf-stable cream and milk are necessary. After all, once you open the containers they have the same shelf-life as plain old pasteurized milk and cream. I’m going to keep experimenting.

  9. R.Amatulli May 14, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    Sounds wonderful, but I didn’t see where the 2 cups of sugar comes into the recipe!

    • Domenica May 14, 2013 at 6:13 am #

      Thank you for the catch. The sugar is heated with the cream and milk so that it dissolves completely. I’ve made the correction.

  10. ciaochowlinda May 14, 2013 at 3:10 am #

    Domenica – So true what you wrote about how strawberries in the supermarkets have no taste. I look forward each year to the season and buying them at farmer’s markets. As kids, we’d go strawberry picking and bring home quarts and quarts. Here I am today in Italy and had the most luscious tasting strawberries for breakfast today with my yogurt. I have never tried making that strawberry cream drink you posted but it’s on my list now.

    • Domenica May 14, 2013 at 6:35 am #

      Linda ~ fresh strawberries in yogurt = delicious. Fresh strawberries in yogurt in Italy = perfection. Let me know if you come across any interesting liquori while you are over there. I plan to do more experimenting.

  11. Jamie May 14, 2013 at 7:17 am #

    You start by bringing me back to Florida and the February trips to the U-Pick-Em strawberry fields where the strawberries were juicy, sweet and luscious. I am so lucky to live where I do and where we get fabulous strawberries from right outside Nantes not to mention the famous gariguettes from Brittany. Divine! Once in a while I get the bad ones for my son who douses them with enough sugar for an army, but how we love eating the really good ones straight from the little cartons. I normally do not eat strawberries any way but straight but my oh my your crema alla fragola sounds like heaven!

    • Domenica May 14, 2013 at 9:56 am #

      Jamie, I don’t think we get the gariguettes here. I may have to visit you in Nantes next year. And, actually, I agree with you about strawberries ~ mostly I just like them straight, or lightly macerated with a little lemon juice and sugar. Otherwise, jam. But I’ve had fun playing around with them this spring. I must tell you that not only the homemade liqueur, but also the homemade strawberry soda floats, were pretty darned awesome. Wish you were closer so we could share a toast about your good news. Looking forward to following your book adventures on your blog. xo

  12. Michelle - Majella Home Cooking May 14, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    Don’t Italians have such a way with homemade liquori (and just about everything else!). My friend Antonio in Abruzzo has a beautiful orchard in Loreto Apruntino from which he produces liqueurs made from cherries, peaches, walnuts and more. I’ll share your recipe with my dad – he makes a lovely crema di limoncello and I’m sure he’d love to expand his repertoire to fragola! Grazie mille!

    • Domenica May 21, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

      Michelle ~ I think you need to introduce me to your friend. Seriously! I’d love to know more about his liquori…

  13. Frank May 20, 2013 at 8:39 am #

    Yep, supermarket strawberries are truly awful. The tomatoes of the fruit world. (OK, tomatoes are fruits, too, I know, but you get my drift.) Farmer’s markets or CSAs are the only way to go. I got some strawberries this week from Washington’s Green Grocer, and they were quite nice.

    • Domenica May 21, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

      Frank, someone else mentioned Washington Green Grocer to me recently. I follow them on social media and have been meaning to check them out. Do they do a CSA? Or are they a shop in town? Thanks for the suggestion.

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