This week, as the season gallops forward at pace, we’re seeing the first of our
wonderful home-grown red berries appearing on the shelves and in our markets.
On a clear day, there’s nothing like indulging oneself with a punnet of strawberries or raspberries, still warm from the sun.
The flavour is unmistakeable, a million miles away from the cold, dull flavour of the air-freighted berries we are sold during the winter months.
I’m still amazed and saddened at the British desire for strawberries at Christmas time – dismal fruit, served six months too late, all in the name of choice. I despair sometimes, I do.
Taste a British strawberry, ripe as it can be, firm with juice and deep vermillion in colour, with that unmistakeable summery smell, and you should never want anything as second-rate ever again.
So, we must make use of these gorgeous native berries as much as possible while they last, and we have thousands of recipes to go at.
I’m a bit of a puritan when it comes to berries – cooking them always seems to lessen their flavour and dull the colours, so if I do much at all, I tend to make quick purées or sauces and leave it at that.
Everything else is pretty much fresh, from ice-creams to sorbets, cakes to tarts. Even my raspberry coulis is simply pressed through a plastic sieve rather than simmered in a pan. All of that essential freshness remains, though it won’t keep as long as a bubbled sauce. Nor should it!
Here, I wanted to herald the start of berry season with a recipe that was as light as a cloud, perfect warm-weather dessert work, something that really shows off the fruit at its best.
I thought of making a very light mousse with that wonderful tart French cheese, fromage frais.
Sharp like yoghurt, but beautifully creamy, it works well with almost any fruit, and here, lightened with a little meringue, it almost floats off the plate.
To anchor it, we’re making a simple sponge, cutting discs from it and smoothing the mousse on top.
The recipe calls for ring moulds, but you could make this dessert in ramekins, or as a large slicing dessert in a loaf or cake tin. With it, I wanted a slightly different, herbal flavour.
Many herbs go well with berries, such as thyme, tarragon, mint and chervil. I chose dill, as it’s an unusual accompaniment, but works beautifully, adding a Scandinavian touch to the finished dish. Feel free to experiment and switch.
The basic syrup process works for all herbs. These mousses will drop a little in the fridge, so they are best made on the day of eating to ensure fully fluffy results.
For the sponge base:
110g unsalted butter, softened
110g unrefined golden caster sugar
2 fresh, free-range eggs, medium size
110g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
For the mousse:
400g fromage frais
The white of 1 large free-range egg
50g icing sugar
Splash of lemon juice
For the dill syrup:
90g white sugar
110ml still mineral water
25g fresh dill, chopped roughly
For the raspberry coulis:
A handful fresh raspberries
A little lemon juice
Fresh strawberries and raspberries
6 x 7cm diameter ring moulds
1 x 20cm cake tin (round or square)
First, make the sponge base; heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4. Lightly butter the tin and line the base with a disc of baking parchment.
Cream the butter and sugar until very pale, then add the eggs one by one, incorporating each completely before adding the next. Sift and mix in the flour, add the baking powder, and mix for about two minutes until just blended. Spoon the mixture into the tin, and level the surface with the back of a spoon or a plastic spatula. Bake for about 25 minutes, until well risen and golden.
The top of the cake should spring back quickly when pressed gently with a finger.
Leave the cake to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the tin to free the cake completely. When the cake is cold, press in a ring mould to cut several discs of sponge. Place these in the ring moulds, set closely together in a suitable tray.
Now, make the mousse; put the egg white into a large heatproof metal or glass bowl and sift in the icing sugar. Set the bowl over a large pan of simmering water and, using a hand-held electric whisk, whisk until the mixture is light, fluffy and holds a nice glossy peak when lifted. Remove from heat, add in the lemon juice, then whisk for a further 2 mins off the heat.
Put the fromage frais in a separate bowl and whisk for a minute or so to loosen the texture. Beat in a third of the egg white to lighten the mixture, then gently fold in the rest. Spoon carefully into the moulds on top of the sponge, even off the tops with a palette knife, and set in the fridge to chill and set up.
To make the dill syrup, dissolve the sugar in the mineral water over a
gentle heat, and allow to cool completely. Whizz the dill with the syrup in a blender, and strain through a fine sieve. Chill the syrup until required.
To make the raspberry coulis, press the fruit through a fine non-reactive sieve and whisk in a little lemon juice and sugar to taste. To serve, place a mousse on each plate, top with a few fresh strawberries and raspberries, plus a few sprinkled about the plate, and garnish with a few drops of dill syrup and raspberry coulis.