The spring break came and went so quickly it hardly seemed like a ‘break’ – more like a ‘breath,’ as in catching one’s own before hurtling through the final crazy weeks of spring semester. With my husband and I teaching at different colleges, our days off rarely coincide, so this latest and much welcomed work-free week was mine to spend alone, tearing out the old strawberry patch and replanting it.
As a master gardener in another county some years ago I learned that most strawberry plants tucker out after three years. In the case of my Traveler’s Joy garden, the plants had simply overfilled their quadrant in that length of time and were sending runners all over the rest of the vegetable garden. The young plants were growing too closely together, as well, and this formerly orderly and productive bed was choked with Bermuda grass and thistle. I estimated it would take me two full days to lift the plants, separate the old mother plants from the youngsters, hand-weed the bed, lay down new compost, and replant the third-year plants. Either I grossly miscalculated the work involved, or I am aging more quickly than I reckoned (or, even more likely, both these conditions prevailed) because the work took me most of the week and taxed every muscle and joint in my body before I was finished.
I only persisted because of the formidable reward promised by such labor: there is nothing so delicious as homegrown strawberries picked and eaten directly from one’s own garden, unless it’s raspberries picked and eaten from one’s own garden, and I grow those as well. As the first soft fruit to come ripe in a southern spring, however, May’s strawberries (confusingly called ‘Junebearers’) are the most eagerly anticipated.
Last year’s crop was spectacular, given the size of my patch, and I know to dampen my expectations with this renovated planting. However, since the plants were settled in we have had good amounts of rain alternating with sunlit days of balmy temperatures, leading to a riot of blossom. It’s a good thing most strawberry types are self-fruiting, as bees have been scarce in my garden so far this spring (more on that in a later entry). I lost the labels on these when I moved the first plants from another garden several years ago, but I think they may be Earliglow as well as another Carolina-recommended variety, possibly Delmarvel, since both types bear early.
|Early harvest from last year's patch|
Having completed final exams at her law school in North Carolina, our daughter delighted us with a brief visit, bringing along her fiancé and his mother so we could all talk wedding plans and get to know each other even better than we do. Since I have had strawberries on my mind but none are yet ripening in my garden, I broke down and bought a pound of Florida-grown fruit in order to make a strawberry cake. The flavor on these berries was unusually good for store-bought; nevertheless, I did my best to enhance them by sprinkling the hulled and sliced berries lightly with sugar and letting them macerate in their own juices at room temperature for a couple of hours before cooking them in the cake.
I clipped this recipe out of a Martha Stewart magazine or article years ago and have tweaked it to suit. While it is the soul of simplicity, it manages to elevate a mere occasion to a celebration when served with heaps of real whipped cream and strong coffee.
6 tablespoons butter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound ripe, fresh strawberries
Hull and halve berries. Place in bowl, sprinkle lightly with about ½ teaspoon sugar, cover with plastic wrap and allow to stand at room temperature for 1 hour or more.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a pie plate with non-stick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In a food processor (or mixer), mix butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Reduce speed and mix in egg, milk and vanilla extract.
Gradually mix in flour mixture. Transfer batter to greased pie plate and distribute evenly over bottom of plate.
Arrange strawberries cut side down atop batter in pan, placing them as close together as possible. Sprinkle very lightly with additional sugar, if desired.
Bake cake 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 325 degrees. Bake until cake is golden and firm to the touch – about 50 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool in pie plate on wire rack. Cut into wedges and serve warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
(May be stored at room temperature, wrapped, for up to two days… but it won’t last that long!)