It is high strawberry season in Florida and, as usual, I am indulging in my great love of the fruit. I personally love strawberries best plain, with maybe a splash of heavy cream, but truly stellar ripe strawberries lend themselves to a variety of great dishes both savory and sweet.
I don’t cook with them much over the rest of the year unless I am using strawberries I have frozen or preserved myself—the California berries that appear in my markets routinely outside of Florida season are large, crunchy, sour and not worth my time. At their peak, Florida strawberries are smaller and sweeter than their California cousins and a testament to all a good strawberry should be.
They are also remarkably versatile. Want a fast and fancy dessert? Marinate perfectly ripe strawberries in a little red wine and just a touch of brown sugar and serve over the best vanilla ice cream you can buy or make. With a teensy grind of black Tellicherry pepper over the top (yes, black pepper. Trust me on this, you and your guests will go nuts).
I also like to preserve strawberries in syrup for use later in the year—preserved strawberries actually taste better if left alone to “cure” for eight or nine months or so. There is nothing better than cracking open a jar of preserved strawberries in the dead of winter, mixing them with a jar of preserved peaches and a little thickener, dumping it into a pie crust to bake and letting the smell of spring fill the house.
My ultimate go-to and most favorite strawberry dessert, however, is diner-style strawberry pie. The ones you see under glass cases in most diners, filled with glistening strawberries and piled high with oceans of whipped cream. The ones that make you think about what you are having for lunch or dinner with all the seriousness given to a war campaign, just so you make sure you have room for dessert.
If you live in certain areas of the country, you’ll understand when I say Bob’s Big Boy restaurants arguably are the best (and best known), by serious foodies and casual diners alike. Rose Levy Beranbaum— estimable baker and cookbook author of such iconic classics as The Cake Bible, The Bread Bible, The Pie and Pastry Bible, et al.—remembers fond weekends with her family when they would drive over 50 miles just to have a slice of this pie.
Copycat recipes abound on the Internet, with most using strawberry Jell-O as a base for the glaze that coats the strawberries. I find the Jell-O versions too sweet and gummy for my tastes—a perfect Florida strawberry, after all, needs little embellishment—so I prefer one made using the more neutral and honest assistance of cornstarch and fruit pectin.
Although many pie recipes call for leaving the filling strawberries whole (and I do admit it makes a pretty pie), I prefer to slice my strawberries—it is my opinion the finished result more than makes up for any loss of presentation with a better fruit-to-glaze ratio and a better mouthfeel.
Diner-Style Strawberry Pie
3 pints fresh strawberries, cleaned, hulled and thickly sliced
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 T. cornstarch
2 tsp. Sure-Jell (for low-sugar, in the pink box—do not use the Sure-Jell in the yellow box or your pie will not set up properly)
Pinch of table salt
1 T. fresh lemon juice
1 baked 9-inch pie shell
Measure out 1-1/2 cups of the sliced strawberries and puree in a food processor until smooth.
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, Sure-Jell and salt. Stir in the strawberry puree; cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a full rolling boil. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom and the sides of the pan constantly. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the lemon juice; let cool to room temperature.
When the glaze is cool, add the remaining sliced strawberries to the bowl with the glaze and mix gently with a spatula until the berries are evenly coated, taking care not to break up the strawberry slices. Pour the strawberry mixture into the baked pie shell. Refrigerate the pie until chilled, about 2 hours.
Top with fresh, lightly sweetened whipped cream and serve (and I don’t have to have a conversation with you about the red plastic can whipped cream, do I?).