It’s strawberry season and recalling my time in Delhi with V, my gracious and super talented landlady, I decided to bake a strawberry crisp, which she used to love.
During those years, I had just started baking. Once the cakes began emerging half decent in shape and taste, churning them out frequently became a confidence building exercise. Since V was vegetarian, and I used eggs for baking, I couldn’t offer her my cakes. And I didn’t really have the courage to even attempt baking an eggless version. Then, berries came into the picture.
As kids, we were quite used to exotic Himalayan berries that we got to collect and eat on lazy walks in the hills during summer holidays. Coming from the city, we would get overly excited seeing the ripe black ones on thorny bushes, the orange ones hanging close to narrow winding mountain paths, and the maroon ones on trees. I remember how our local resident cousins would get embarrassed by our behaviour. In the city, we only knew of the tiny red berries and the slightly larger green ones which street vendors would sell outside school with a spicy masala.
Then I came across something called warm berries.
I saw the dish for the first time on the menu of a restaurant serving French cuisine in Washington DC. I was intrigued and amused. Why in the world would you warm berries, or for that matter any fruit except when turning them into a jam or chutney? Even those would taste better when cool. However, you can’t question the French, can you? Certainly not their food.
Knowing and appreciating that sentiment well, I kept my queries to myself and ordered the warm berry custard instead of ice cream – the only other dessert option – much to the horror of my seven colleagues. Clearly, we were all quite new to this kind of food.
After the salad and the mains followed trepidation, engulfing my friends more than my “adventurous” self. Seven people feeling sorry for me at once broke my personal record of that time – later, of course, more records were created when I found myself in stickier situations.
First came seven delicious looking ice creams. I waited with bated breath. In the flat glass dish that the dessert arrived, I could pry a layer of all kinds of summer berries covered with custard. A cautious first taste and then a sprint to the end without a word spoken or heard – that’s how the dish was polished off.
When I looked up from all that gobbling, a smug broad smile had found its way to my face. No one believed that I had loved it. How could they? They didn’t even get to see it properly, let alone have a taste! All I can say is that the adage “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” surely emerged from such an experience.
My most important discovery that day was how fruits could turn into delicious warm dishes especially suitable for cold days. During cold winters of North India I often tossed cubed, slightly tangy apples or grapes on a wok with a little oil, salt and red chilli flakes that served as a crunchy side dish or a mid-day snack. (Why is my mouth is watering as I write this?!) I don’t like apples well done as in strudels and pies, so I never really tried making those. However, I did bake an apple crisp thinking I could retain some crispiness of the apples. I didn’t mind them as much in the crisp but didn’t relish them either. I definitely enjoyed the topping more!
During the last century, strawberries appeared rarely in most Indian cities. Then Mahabaleshwar happened and everyone travelling there would come back with all sorts of processed strawberry products, except fresh ones as they perished easily during transport.
Over the last decade and a half, fresh strawberries started to appear in many parts of the country during winter months in small clear plastic packs, marketing themselves beautifully on shop shelves. One day, I discovered such a pack on our dining table courtesy S. They were so tart they couldn’t be eaten without some sort of processing. I have never liked them with fresh cream – I can’t for the life of me understand what’s the hullabaloo about. Maybe the ones in England taste different.
And that’s how, in a desperate bid to salvage them, the strawberry crisp happened. N and S found it very sour, I liked it, remembered the warm berries with custard, and made a mental note to taste the berries and sweeten them accordingly before cooking.
One advantage of this dessert was that I could offer it to V. I sent her a small portion from the next bake for feedback, hoping she’d not ask me how this sour thing could be termed a dessert. She loved it! I wasn’t too sure if that were the truth, she’s always encouraging and I knew would never be brutally critical.
Nonetheless, when she asked me to bake it again, I feel relieved and glad I did a few of those for her before we moved out of the city. Meanwhile, a couple of young girls, my friends’ daughters, and a few people here and there showed a lot of interest in the strawberry crisp but it largely remained ignored by most people who ate at ours, including N and S. I came to like it very much and made it several times just for myself and V.
This year, with the coronavirus engulfing our lives, has been exceptional in many ways. For my strawberry crisp, it has been shockingly enthusiastic – N and S have taken to it totally, neighbours and friends are asking for seconds and thirds, and a four-year-old wants me to live forever! I don’t think much has changed in the way I make it, somebody or something else has to be given the credit for its new-found popularity on the food charts.
Strawberry Crisp: Recipe
- 1 pack of fresh strawberries (250-300 gm), washed, hulled and sliced
- 1 tablespoon dark rum (optional)
- Half cup wheat flour (atta)
- 2 tablespoon rolled oats – you may use instant instead, the topping will be less crunchy but still quite tasty
- Around half cup jaggery powder (adjust as per the tartness of berries)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- Pinch of salt if using unsalted butter, otherwise no need
- 75 gm butter, chilled and cut into small cubes
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (essential)
Add a tablespoon of jaggery powder to sliced strawberries, mix and taste to check the sweet-sour balance. It should be as per your taste. Add more jaggery if needed. Pour in the rum. Place this mixture evenly in a square 8×8-inch baking pan – the crisp looks very pretty in a flat glass dish – and set aside.
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 175 degrees C.
In a bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, oats, spices, and, if using, salt. Add 60 gms of the butter, breaking and incorporating it in the mix with your fingers. Continue till you get a crumbly texture, add remaining butter if needed – the coarseness of the flour and oats may make a slight difference to the amount of butter needed. This would take less than five minutes. Toss in the walnuts and mix. Taste the mix for sweetness. I prefer it to be mildly sweet, you may add more jaggery powder if that’s what you like. Top the strawberry mix in the baking dish with this mixture, tapping it gently with your fingers to achieve a roughly uniform layer. As a rule of thumb, if the berry layer is about half an inch, I make the crumble layer slightly thicker than that. Also, if the berries are very tart more crumble balances the overall taste.
Bake at 175 degrees C until fruit is juicy and bubbling, and the top of the crumble is slightly browned and crisp, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool a bit if the weather is cold, otherwise wait for it to come to room temperature. Serve as is or with vanilla ice cream. This crisp is delicious served warm especially during slightly cold days. Where I live its hardly ever cold, it tastes the best at room temperature. This can be stored, covered, in the fridge and reheated in the oven or microwave for serving. It will lose some of its crispiness but will still be delicious.
Based mostly on Joy’s recipe at: https://joythebaker.com/2013/07/strawberry-raspberry-crisp/