Have you ever had a sugared basil leaf? It's a revelation -- seriously. I tried one for the first time last week when Jeff and I had dinner and dessert at Bergamot, a new-ish restaurant in Somerville, Mass. (in the former EVOO spot). It came with a strawberry dessert, and in the candlelit restaurant, I wasn't quite sure what it was, but I broke a little piece off, tasted it slowly, and was incredibly surprised when I realized it was basil with a sugary crust. You get that bright, fresh flavor basil is loved for, plus a teeny bit of sweetness, and an amazing crispness. I knew that as soon as I got my hands on some basil, I was going to try to recreate my new favorite garnish.
Well, wouldn't you know, we went out to dinner on Friday night, and the Union Square Farmers' Market started up on Saturday morning. We went to the market first thing because we were heading to Connecticut that morning to visit our friends and their new baby. I did a brief scan of all the offerings and ended up at the Kimball Fruit Farm stand, gathering up bunches of basil and a pint of juicy strawberries. I thought I would make strawberry shortcakes and top them with my version of a sugared basil leaf.
We actually ended up having strawberry shortcakes with our friends in Connecticut, made with some freshly picked strawberries, so I didn't make these shortcake sammies until Sunday night -- even though I probably could have eaten more strawberry shortcakes on Saturday evening.
Something about farm fresh berries -- I can't get enough of them. I think if you put a just-picked strawberry next to one from the supermarket, you've almost got two different fruits there. A just-picked or farmstand strawberry is a vibrant red, has a strong fragrance, and is so soft and juicy when you bite into it. A supermarket strawberry has a much firmer texture and less juiciness to it. During the summer, I definitely recommend taking advantage of any picking or farmers' market opportunities for getting strawberries.
With strawberries and basil at the ready, I began flipping through my cookbooks to find a good shortcake recipe. I don't like anything too cakey or too biscuit-y, so I'm kind of hard to please when it comes to shortcake. I usually make a Martha Stewart recipe, but it's still a little more on the biscuit side than I would like.
I opted for a recipe I found in Baking Illustrated and of course made a couple of small modifications. I really loved the way these came out. The were biscuit-like but also very light, moist, and mildly sweet.
Before I started the shortcakes, I cleaned and hulled all of my strawberries. Somewhat following the Baking Illustrated instructions, I placed half of the berries in a bowl and sprinkled some sugar over them. I sliced the remaining berries, stirred those in, and left all of the berries to macerate. I was using ripe, red berries and I didn't think they needed to be overwhelmed with sugar, so I didn't use nearly as much as the recipe called for.
Once I had my shortcakes in the oven, I worked on the basil leaves. While they didn't come out quite as crisp and brittle as the one I had at Bergamot, I still liked my version. (Since then, I've gotten some tips on how the pastry chef at Bergamot makes hers, and I'm going to give it another try soon. If I achieve the perfect results, I'll be sure to share them with you.)
Mini Strawberry Shortcake Sammies With Sugared Basil Leaves (adapted from Baking Illustrated; inspired by Bergamot)
Makes 4 mini sammies (enough for dessert for two) with leftover shortcake dough for future desserts
1 1/2 cups strawberries
1 tablespoon sugar
Clean and hull berries. Place half of berries in a bowl and sprinkle with sugar. Gently mass them with a fork or potato masher. Slice the remaining strawberries and toss the slices in the bowl with the mashed berries. Set aside.
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut in cubes
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon half-and-half
1 egg white, lightly beaten
Turbinado-style vanilla sugar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Pulse flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in food processor to mix. Add butter pieces, and process until butter is evenly dispersed throughout flour mixture and mixture resembles coarse meal. Transfer to a medium bowl.
In a measuring cup, mix the beaten egg with the half-and-half. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture, and stir together with a rubber spatula, until dough starts to come together.
Lightly flour your countertop, and turn the dough out onto it. Knead until the dough comes together, being careful not to work it too much.
Pat the dough into a 9- by 6-inch rectangle. Using a 1 1/2- or 2-inch biscuit cutter, cut out 4 circles of dough. Place the circles on a cookie sheet.
Brush the circles with some of the beaten egg white, and sprinkle turbinado sugar on top.
Bake the shortcakes for about 10 to 12 minutes, until golden brown. Place cookie sheet on a wire rack to cool.
While the shortcakes are baking, cut circles from the remaining dough, reforming the scraps to get more circles. Place these on another cookie sheet, and pop them in the freezer. Once they have hardened, you can place them in a bag, and now you'll have little shortcakes you can pull out of the freezer and bake whenever you have fresh strawberries on hand. Just remember to brush them with egg white and sprinkle them with sugar, and either let them thaw out first overnight or adjust your baking time and temp accordingly.
Sugared Basil Leaves
(Click here for newer, crunchier version)
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
Heat water and 1 cup of the sugar in small saucepan until sugar is dissolved. Set the simple syrup aside to cool slightly.
Place remaining sugar in a shallow bowl.
Drag basil leaves, one at a time, through the simple syrup and then coat them with sugar (as if you are dredging chicken).
Place on rack to dry. (I recommend making only as many as you want that night as they don't hold up well.)
Use your favorite homemade recipe or store-bought version.
Assembling The Sammies
Take out two dessert plates, and set two shortcakes on each plate.
Carefully split the shortcakes just by pulling them apart with your fingers. They will naturally split.
Top each shortcake base with some of the berries, adding extra juice if desired.
Add some of the sugared basil leaves, and a dollop of whipped cream.
Replace the shortcake tops. Serve with extra whipped cream, berries, and basil, if desired.
I set out forks with these, but I found it was much more fun to pick them up and bit into them like little dessert sandwiches, so I ended up calling them shortcake sammies instead of just shortcakes.
I really loved this dessert, and I hope you will too.
Oh, and don't think I let all my leftover basil go to waste...
...there's plenty of pesto in my freezer now!
What's your favorite thing to make with summer strawberries?
What do you tend to seek out at the farmers' market?
Did you read my post about local food and farmers' markets yet?
And if you love strawberries and live in the Boston area, don't forget to check out the Third Annual Strawberry Dessert Festival, which starts tomorrow and runs through July 4.