- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Strawberries may appear in our produce departments year-round, but the real strawberries, the ones with flavor, are here only briefly because they are locally grown. Eat these strawberries with abandon. Savor them. Celebrate them. Throw a dinner party in their honor.

I’ll never forget picking strawberries with my daughter Kathleen when she was 4. Low to the ground, she picked the berries and handed them to me to place in the basket. As we picked, I noticed fewer and fewer berries were being passed to me and that Kathleen’s lips were red from the juice of those irresistible berries.

Thinking back, I might have been frustrated with Kathleen, but she was enjoying those berries with abandon, something we seldom have a chance to do.

To cap off this totally strawberry meal, bake one of my favorite cakes. The flour in this recipe serves to help soak up the excess moisture from the strawberries. The sugar makes the cake more tender, but feel free to omit it.

Five time-shaving ways to eat more fresh fruit: It’s costly to buy pre-washed and prepared fruit in the supermarkets, and I often wonder, “How long has that melon been cut?” So I usually opt for the whole melon and take it home and cut it up myself.

So how to eat fresh and yet save time? Here are my suggestions:

• Do as restaurant kitchens do and “break it down.” That means, once in the door, go ahead and halve, seed and cut that melon into serving pieces. Store in a plastic container or clear glass bowl, and children will see the fruit and choose it for fast snacks.

• Wash grapes, pat dry with paper towels, then store them in a glass or plastic bowl in the fridge, ready for eating.

• Let pineapples rest for a day or two on the counter to ripen a bit more. Then slice off the top, slice down the sides and across the bottom to remove the rough exterior, and place the trimmed pineapple right side up on a cutting board. From the top, slice down to the board vertically to trim the pineapple from its core. Discard the core, then cube or slice the pineapple for immediate eating. Think a fast fruit salsa for grilled fish or chicken.

• Go ahead and peel oranges and break them into segments. Chill and enjoy.

• Strawberries are one fruit that should be rinsed and patted dry just before eating because they soak up water like little sponges. They can be rinsed, patted dry, cored and halved up to a day in advance, if kept chilled. Toss with sugar up to an hour before serving if you think they need sweetening.

Triple-decker strawberry cake.

The preparation time is 10 minutes, the baking time is 33 to 35 minutes, and the assembly time is 15 minutesCAKE:

Solid vegetable shortening for greasing the pans

Flour for dusting the pans

1 18.25-ounce package plain white cake mix

1 3-ounce package strawberry gelatin

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup vegetable oil, such as canola, corn, safflower, soybean or sunflower

½ cup granulated sugar, optional

½ cup whole milk

4 large eggs

½ cup finely chopped fresh strawberries and juice

FROSTING:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted, or more if needed

½ cup finely chopped fresh strawberries and juice, or more if needed

1 cup halved fresh strawberries for garnish

Lightly grease three 9-inch round cake pans with solid vegetable shortening, then dust with flour. Shake out excess flour. Set pans aside.

Place cake mix, strawberry gelatin, flour, oil, sugar (if using), milk, eggs and strawberries with juice in a large mixing bowl, and blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 1 minute. Stop machine and scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula.

Increase mixer speed to medium; beat for 2 minutes more, scraping sides down again, if needed. The strawberries should be well-blended into the batter. Divide batter among prepared pans, and place them on center rack of preheated 350-degree oven.

If your oven is not large enough, place two pans on center rack and place the third pan in center of highest rack.Bake cakes until they spring back when lightly pressed with your finger and just start to pull away from sides of the pan, 33 to 35 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the layer on the highest oven rack.

Remove pans from oven and place on wire racks to cool for 10 minutes. Run a dinner knife around edge of each layer and invert each onto a rack, then invert again onto another rack so that cakes are right side up. Allow to cool completely, 30 minutes more.

Meanwhile, prepare the frosting: Place softened butter in a large mixing bowl, and blend it with an electric mixer on low speed until fluffy, 20 seconds.

Stop machine; add 4 cups confectioners’ sugar and ½ cup strawberries and juice. Blend on low speed until frosting is creamy and of spreadable consistency. If it is too thin, add more sugar. If it is too thick, add more strawberries.

To assemble, place one cake layer, right side up, on a serving platter. Spread the top with frosting. Add another layer, right side up, on top of the first and frost the top.

Repeat this process with the third layer and frost the top; the cake should now resemble a torte with the sides left unfrosted.

Decorate the top attractively with the halved strawberries. Serve at once, or chill the cake for later serving. Place this cake, uncovered, in the refrigerator until the frosting sets, 20 minutes.

Cover cake with waxed paper, and store it in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Or freeze it, wrapped in aluminum foil, for up to 6 months. Thaw cake overnight in the refrigerator before serving. Makes 16 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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