Sunday, June 19, 2011

Strawberry Social

I have a friend at work who is retiring this year, and she threw a HUGE backyard bash yesterday to celebrate! And--miracle of miracles--the rain let up for a few hours, and it was a truly GORGEOUS day for a garden party! There were tents and tables set up, two bands that took turns playing (she has a very musical family!), and all the bottled beverages the revelers could consume! For the food, the hostess made Italian beef sandwiches and meatballs and a three-bean salad, and of course, there was a big congratulatory cake. The rest of us were encouraged to bring either a salad or other side dish OR a dessert. But my friend, June, goaded me by reporting that she would be bringing both a pasta salad AND some delectable brownies a la Alton Brown (Alton Brownies?) So I felt like an underachiever if I didn't prepare one savory and one sweet item, too. But what to bring?

I always like to be inspired by local, fresh, seasonal food, so my first thought was: STRAWBERRIES! But it's been so cool and wet this year, our local u-picks weren't officially open for business yet. Therefore, as has become my custom, I made my way to Quebec to acquire THESE beauties! They are somewhat smaller, but sweeter and gorgeously red all the way through. Now...what to do with them?

For my savory side, I made a ginormous salad with mixed greens, sliced strawberries, crumbled blue cheese, slivered red onions, and my new favorite crouton substitute--pepitas! And I found the perfect bottled dressing to accompany a strawberry salad, Brianna's Blush Wine Vinaigrette. SO YUMMY!

That just left dessert. The most obvious strawberry dessert is shortcake, but I didn't think that it would hold up well at an outdoor potluck. I also considered strawberry cheesecake, but again, I thought it might melt in the sun. So I settled on strawberry pie. Everyone loves strawberry pie, but no one (with a shred of taste or dignity) enjoys that nasty red goo that you buy in the produce department--the one that's corn syrup-based and of a hue not occuring in nature. So I went trolling for a recipe where you make a homemade glaze for the berries. In doing so, I ran across a pie that had a cream cheese layer, and that settled that! It's like strawberry pie and cheesecake put together! YUM!

I made a couple of substantive changes, of course. The main ones were that the glaze recipe calls for grenadine syrup, and the store that I stopped at was out, so I used Pom Wonderful's fresh pomegranate juice (which worked great, and I would always make this swap in the future--it just tastes better and without the added corn syrup in grenadine). And since my herb garden is overrun with thyme right now, I decided to infuse the glaze with a bundle of the fragrant stuff. I thought it turned out delicious, cutting the fruity sweetness with those fresh, herbal notes. I would do that again, too. I was a little worried about the cream cheese layer sitting around outside, so I brought a bag of ice to sit the pie on (clever, non?), and knowing how the strawberries would start to make everything runny in short order, I waited until I got to the party to add the strawberry topping to the pie. I am pleased to report that I took home a clean pie plate!

If strawberries have started (or are still going) where you live, you should try making this lovely pie. And if you're preparing it to take to an event, you will be pleased to know that you can bake the crust and fill it with the cream cheese layer ahead of time. Wrap it with plastic, and just let it chill overnight. You may also make the glaze the day before, and let that chill, too. Before you head to your party, slice your berries and toss with the glaze. Then take the pie and the berry mixture separately, and combine immediately before serving. (This is not a pie that holds over well, so be prepared to eat the whole thing in one sitting; it's a great way to make new friends!)

Strawberry Cheesecake Pie with Pomegranate-Thyme Glaze
(adapted from Allrecipes)

1 deep-dish pie shell, baked and thoroughly cooled

1 cup heavy cream
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2/3 cup Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
bundle of fresh thyme (tied with string), optional
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

4 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Transfer to another bowl. Then mix together cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Fold whipped cream (by hand) into cream cheese mixture. Spread over bottom of baked and cooled pie shell. Chill. (You can do all of this the day before.)

2. In a saucepan, mix together sugar and cornstarch. Whisk in the pomegranate and lemon juices. Toss in the thyme bundle (if using). Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook five minutes, stirring constantly, or until thickened. Remove thyme bundle. Allow glaze to cool, then chill. (This can also be done a day ahead.)

3. Just before serving, stir together strawberries and cooled cornstarch mixture until evenly coated. Spread over cream cheese layer.

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