- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2006

I had a raspberry the other day that was large and deep red. I was bracing myself for the bitterness, but it was really, really sweet. I had forgotten that a raspberry could be sweet.

Sadly, most of the fruit we buy is picked well before it is ripe so it will hold up during shipping. Many fruits that get their sweetness from the plant, not from chemical changes in the fruit itself, are sour when they are picked early. This is because the plant has not had enough time to endow the fruit with the gift of sweetness.

Some fruits may actually look like they are ripening in our fruit bowls at home. They take on the beautiful bright color of ripe fruit and soften as ripe fruit does, but, alas, they never get any sweeter than the day they were picked.

Jeffrey Steingarten, in an excellent article on ripe fruit in Vogue magazine in 1992, divided fruits into five categories:

• Fruits that never ripen after they are picked: blackberries, cacao, cherries, grapes, grapefruit, lemons, limes, litchi, oranges including mandarins, olives, pineapples, raspberries, strawberries and watermelons.

• Fruits that ripen only after picking: avocados.

• Fruits that ripen in color, texture and juiciness but do not ripen in flavor or sweetness after harvest: apricots, blueberries, cantaloupes, casaba melons, crenshaws, figs, honeydews, nectarines, passion fruit, peaches, Persian melons and persimmons.

• Fruits that do get sweeter after harvest: apples, cherimoyas, kiwis, mangoes, papayas, pears, sapotes and soursaps.

• Fruits that ripen in every way after harvest: bananas.

It is possible to speed up or slow down the ripening process with fruit that is capable of ripening after harvest. Apples and bananas, for example, give off ethylene gas, which speeds ripening. You may have seen an example of how this works right in your own kitchen. Ever place a partially green banana on top of a fruit bowl filled with apples, only to return the next day and see that the banana has become overripe? This was the work of ethylene emitted by the apples.

You can also speed up the ripening of an avocado by placing it in a paper bag with a couple of apples and loosely closing the bag. Do not close the bag tightly. You do not want to cut off air. You just want to concentrate the ethylene.

Another step toward magnificent fruit is to realize that with many fruits it is up to us to finish nature’s sweetening job. It is not a sin to sweeten fresh fruit that was naturally intended to be sweet. Taste the fruit. If it is not sweet and wonderful, add sugar or a sweetener. Because of its crisp zip, I sometimes add a little fresh ginger root, and people seem to go crazy over it.

To make it, mince a 2-inch piece of fresh ginger root in the food processor, then add it to a cup of boiling water and allow it to stand about 15 minutes. Strain, saving the liquid, and discard the ginger. Add 1 cup sugar and another cup of water to the ginger-flavored water. After it is cooled, pour it over fresh fruit, such as peeled and sliced oranges, peeled chunks of cantaloupe, strawberries, blueberries or seedless grapes. Allow it to stand refrigerated overnight and serve it in a clear glass bowl to show off the beauty.

What about cooking with fruit? How can we keep blueberries in a pie plump and beautiful or strawberries in a dessert firm and pretty?

When you heat fruits or vegetables, the cells fall apart and lose liquid. Heat causes the pectic substance glue that holds the cells together to change to water-soluble pectins, which dissolve and cause the cells to fall apart. The fruit or vegetable softens and eventually collapses. Fortunately, sugar or calcium prevent this change and preserve the glue between the cells.

A dramatic example of how sugar and calcium work is the difference between refried beans and Boston baked beans. You can cook beans without sugar or molasses (which contains both calcium and sugar) and in about 6 hours the beans become mush, much like refried beans. If the same beans are cooked with molasses, they can be cooked for hours longer and they will still retain their shape.

My friend Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture” (Scribner), says that fruits are pretty wrappers for water. Even apples, which are firm, contain 86 percent water. When you heat fruits, they lose a lot of this water. That is why fruit pies or cobblers can become watery and boil over during cooking.

We want to preserve the shape of the beautiful fruit, and to prevent the fruits from watering down whatever dish they are in. Two experts offered solutions: Monroe Boston Strause, the so-called pie king of the 1930s, and Roland Mesnier, the White House pastry chef for 25 years.

Strause suggested carefully stirring the fruit (peeled and sliced when appropriate) with a portion of the sugar in the dish and allowing it to stand in a colander over a bowl for at least 3 hours. This partially sweetens the fruit and draws out a considerable amount of water, which is caught in the bowl.

This drained liquid (about 1 cup) can be reduced to concentrate the flavor and then thickened with starches such as cornstarch or tapioca flour. (Use 3 tablespoons stirred into 1/4 cup water.) When you bring the thickened juice to a boil, it will form a stiff paste. Stir to prevent scorching.

After the thickened juice comes to a boil, stir in the remaining sugar and the salt. The filling will thin. Again, it will be necessary to bring this mixture back to a boil, stirring to prevent scorching. Pour this cooked mixture over the drained fruit and carefully stir with a wooden spatula. Do not refrigerate, but allow it to cool before pouring it into the crust to bake.

Fruit prepared this way will retain its shape. The fruit juices are converted to a syrup glaze that will not become cloudy. The fruit is not mashed up or broken, and the filling is not a thick, starchy mess.

Mr. Mesnier solves the problem of keeping the fruit beautiful in cold desserts by making a strong sugar syrup (3 cups of sugar in 1 cup of water, brought to a boil). He keeps this syrup barely at a simmer, adds the fruit and simmers for less than 15 minutes. (Smaller fruits requires less time: 1 to 2 minutes for blueberries, for example.)

He lifts the fruit out to drain and boils down the fruit-sugar water until it is an intensely fruit-flavored syrup. He now has beautiful fruit and incredible syrup to flavor parts of his dessert.

The blueberries and Bordeaux — as in the Pepperidge Farm cookies — recipe that follows is an easy way to make a magnificent fresh blueberry pie. It is a short-cut version of Mr. Mesnier’s method of using sugar syrup to preserve fresh fruit’s shape. To make it, all you need is a little jelly.

Judy Brady’s blueberries and Bordeaux

This recipe is from Judy Brady of Fort Walton Beach, Fla. It’s fresh, cold blueberries in a cookie crust — the perfect summer dessert. It is incredibly easy. Salt suppresses bitterness to allow other flavors to come out. The amount of gelatin specified just enough to set the pie. A little juice will trickle from the slice. If you want a completely firm pie, use 11/3 to 1½ teaspoons gelatin.

1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin

Water

1 cup (about 11 ounces) red or black seedless raspberry jam or blueberry preserves (I usually use Smucker’s)

1/8 teaspoon salt

5 to 6 cups (a little less than 1½ quarts) fresh blueberries, rinsed and drained

Bordeaux macadamia crust (recipe follows)

Mascarpone cream (recipe follows) (see note)

Sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup cool water in a glass measuring cup and allow to soften.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt jam, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and stir softened gelatin into hot melted jam. Stir in salt and blueberries. Stir gently with a wooden spatula to coat all blueberries, then pour into baked and cooled Bordeaux macadamia crust. Refrigerate 1 hour or more to chill well. Spread with mascarpone cream and serve cold. Makes 8 servings.

Note: Two cups sour cream sweetened with 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, or 1 cup heavy cream, whipped and sweetened with 2 tablespoons sugar could be substitute for mascarpone cream in this recipe.

BORDEAUX MACADAMIA CRUST

Delicious Bordeaux cookies combined with macadamia nuts make an incredible crust that is perfect for cold fruit or chiffon pies, mousses or cheesecakes. Without additional sugar, the large amount of sugar in the cookies makes the crust uncuttable.

To cut the sugar concentration in the crumbs, I could add bread or zwieback crumbs or finely chopped nuts. I selected macadamia nuts. To moisten the crust a little, I added flaked coconut. Because of the richness of the macadamia nuts, I used less butter than in a plain graham cracker crust.

Nonstick cooking spray

27 Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies

½ to 3/4 cup (about 3 ounces) roasted, salted macadamia nuts

1/3 cup flaked sweetened coconut

3 tablespoons melted butter

Mist a 9-inch pie pan with nonstick cooking spray. In a food processor, chop cookies and nuts to fine crumbs. Add coconut; process with a few quick ons and offs to blend well. Drizzle in melted butter while processing with quick ons and offs.

Spread crumbs over bottom of pan and up sides. Bake on center shelf of preheated 350-degree oven for 8 minutes, or until just starting to color. Cool completely before filling. Makes one 9-inch crust.

MASCARPONE CREAM

This is my favorite topping for fruit. Food writer and teacher Michele Scicolone introduced me to the joy of mascarpone and honey. Stirring the honey into the mascarpone lightens it to make blending with the whipped cream easier. Having the cream, bowl and beaters cold helps fat stick together around air bubbles to hold the whipped cream firm.

½ cup mascarpone cheese

2 tablespoons honey

1 cup heavy whipping cream

In a small bowl, whisk together mascarpone and honey. Place a medium bowl and beaters in freezer for 5 minutes. Whip cream to medium firm peaks in cold bowl with cold beaters. Fold mascarpone mixture into whipped cream. Chill until ready to serve. Serve cold. Makes about 2½ cups.

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