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.
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.
- 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
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.