Thursday, 12 May 2011

A Delicious Surprise in the Garden

Whenever I return to our house in France after being away for a while, I drop my bags and shoot into the garden to see what's up. 

Spring is my favourite season here because it brings dreamy anticipation of what's to come.  Orange trees in bloom means jars of marmalade.  My lime tree laden with tiny limes means gin and tonic on the terrace with friends.  Olive trees covered with little white olive blossoms bring October's harvest party and fruity emerald oil for salads.  Little Fraises des Bois in the strawberry patch means, huh?  I don't remember seeing strawberries in our garden before.  Where did these come from?

It could only be one thing.  Once upon a time we had a bumbling gardener but we fired him since he was always killing as many things as he was planting.  He must have planted put them there years ago and with all the rain we've been having in the south of France lately, the patch must have taken hold, a legacy to his fickle and dubious abilities.
I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Fraises des Bois.  When I was a little girl I remember foraging with my grandmother and although I didn't appreciate her quirky passion at the time I do remember how much I liked finding the little wild strawberries and being scolded for eating them as I found them instead of collecting them.  Their intense fragrance and slightly sour taste was irresistible.

I'm in good company.  Loius XIV of France was also very fond of strawberries.  His gardener,  La Quintinie,  grew them in the greenhouses in Versailles when he was appointed Steward of the Fruit Gardens in 1673.  He did such a good job he was later appointed Director of Fruit and Vegetable Gardens in all royal residences.  Quite the honour.  

Further poking around in the garden inspired me to collect some lavender and I created this recipe to celebrate all the little surprises that spring brings.

 Fraises des Bois in Meringue Nests 
with Lavender Cream

Serves 6
Preheat oven to 95˚C/200˚F

Hand held beaters or stand mixer
Baking sheet lined with parchment.
Two large serving spoons

2 pints (500g) Fraises des bois 

Meringue Nests
2 large (60g) egg whites
¼  cup (55g) superfine sugar
½ cup (55g) powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

Cream Filling
1 cup (250g) whipping cream
2 tablespoons (10g) powdered sugar
5 fresh lavender sprigs or 1 teaspoon dried flowers or chopped fresh flowers

Prepare the Strawberries
Quickly dip the strawberries in water, drain, and set aside on paper towels to dry

Prepare the lavender cream
Heat the cream until steam rises from it.  Just before it’s about to boil, pour it into a bowl and stir in the lavender, the 2 tablespoons (10g) of powdered sugar and the vanilla.  Cover and refrigerate until cold.

Prepare the Meringue

Beat the egg whites with the whisk attachment on medium until foamy.
Add the cream of tartar and continue beating while sprinkling in about 1 tablespoon of superfine sugar.  Continue to beat until soft peaks form.  Increase the speed to high and gradually sprinkle in the remaining sugar.  Keep beating until stiff, glossy peaks form.
Sift the powdered sugar over the mixture and fold it in by hand with a spatula until it’s fully incorporated and the mixture is smooth.  You must use this mixture at once.

Use Large Spoons for Quenelles
Form the Nests
To form the nests, gently drop large spoonfuls of the meringue onto the parchment lined baking sheet to make 6 - 8 nests.  You can be creative and make any shape you want as long as there is an indentation to hold the cream.  I made quenelles for this recipe because they look pretty.  If you'd like to make the same shape, rather than take up the page telling you how to make quenelles, here is a practical YouTube video that  demonstrates the technique.   How to Make Quenelles

After you've dropped the nests onto the parchment, you'll need to make an indentation for the cream.  Rinse the spoon and shake the water off of it. It should still be wet.  Push the spoon gently down lengthwise into the top of the nest.  Pull it away while still pushing gently into the meringue.  Lift the spoon up and away at the end of the nest.  Rinse the spoon after  making each indentation and repeat with the remaining nests. Try to work quickly because if the nests become too dry they will crack when you make the indentations.


Bake the Meringues 
Bake the meringues for 1 hour at 200˚F (95˚C).  After 1 hour, turn the oven off and let them stay there to dry out further until you are ready to make the dessert.  The meringues can be left in the oven overnight.

Assembly and Finishing 
Remove the nests from the parchment and set them on individual serving plates.  Be sure they have cooled completely.

Pour the cream through a fine sieve into a mixing bowl to remove the lavender.  Whip the cream on high until medium peaks form.  Spoon a generous portion of cream into each of the nests and top with strawberries.

You can decorate the plate with little edible spring flowers or sprigs of lavender, whatever you can find to make the plate pretty.
Serve immediately.

If you can't find Fraises des Bois, you can substitute something fresh that you may find in your garden or the market.  Blueberries, raspberries, sliced peaches or nectarines are all lovely alternatives.

Traditional French Chantilly or whipped cream, has 10% powdered sugar by weight.  I reduced this to less than half because the meringues themselves are quite sweet.

Be careful not to use too much lavender to flavour the cream.  The lavender is meant to be very subtle.  To much lavender and your cream will become bitter and taste like perfume!

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