Strawberries and Salty Caramel Creme

When I was growing up in Denton, Texas, strawberry season meant saving milk cartons from January to April, and then all of us – my mom, dad, brother, and me – would pile into the family station wagon (a blue Buick, with faux wood paneling, in case you were wondering), and drive two hours’ north, across the Red River to my grandparents’ farm outside of Ardmore, Oklahoma.

My grandfather had an enormous strawberry patch, just west of the hand-built red farmhouse, bordered by a barbed wire fence, on the other side of which were the cattle, a lake stocked with catfish, and beyond that, even, an oil well that never saw a drop of crude.

Fertilized with dried cow patties that he’d crush with his hands and sprinkle over each neat row, my grandfather’s strawberry patch was a source of pride, and of spring berries for the whole town. After we’d spend hours picking berries and putting them gently into the red and white cardboard Borden milk cartons, he’d take them home, and leave them on his front porch for anyone who wanted them.

My grandmother usually served them on top of angel food cake, one of the few things that she baked and didn’t burn. By the time that we got around to eating them, I was often completely uninterested. Back then, strawberries meant red fingers and a whole lot of work, which made them less desirable.

Now, I’m completely mad about strawberries. I usually start buying them the moment that they begin to appear in the markets, around Easter, because I can’t wait to slice them up and put them in yogurt, or put a dollop of crème fraiche on top, or as I’ve learned to do while living in Paris, eat them with cracked black pepper (try it – it’s quite amazing).

The key is to find strawberries that actually taste like strawberries, since so many of them are imposters. Since my Oklahoma-milk carton days, I’ve had more disappointments than not, but recently I’ve discovered a berry that comes quite close: the coveted Gariguette. Grown in the south near Avignon, Gariguettes are the Audrey Hepburn of strawberries – elegant and with a long, narrow body, rather than chunky and heart-shaped.

They are the cutest little things I’ve ever seen.

More than that, they taste amazing. Just like strawberries should. Suddenly, I’m right back in Oklahoma, on my knees, in my grandfather’s strawberry patch. I don’t even care if they’re double, or triple, the price of the other berries (which they are); I’m going to spend my last centime on Gariguettes until they’re gone.

Lately, besides strawberries, I’ve also been obsessing over how to make salty caramel whipped cream, which one of my favorite restaurants in Paris, L’Ami Jean, serves alongside their famously rich rice pudding, and it occurred to me that the two, together, would be absolutely delicious.

After a few tries on my own – folding the caramel into whipped cream didn’t work as one recipe promised, and my own impatience resulted in a complete disaster in another attempt – I found a Martha Stewart recipe, and tweaked it just a bit, adding salt, and following my own NEVER STIR THE CARAMEL rule.

It was perfect. It also thickens up a bit more if you refrigerate it after you whip it.

Salty Caramel Crème

½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon fleur de sel
2 cups whipping cream

1. Make an ice bath — fill a large bowl about two-thirds with ice cubes — and set aside.

2. Put sugar, water, and salt in heavy, saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves.

3. Increase heat. Let mixture remain at low boil without stirring — occasionally brush down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water and give the pan a swirl — until color turns amber. This will take about 10-15 minutes.

4. Add cream to mixture (it will bubble up like crazy), and stir with wooden spoon until the sugar melts.

5. Pour into a bowl and place in ice bath for 30 minutes, at least. Stir mixture every now and then. When it’s very cold, just whip it up as you normally would.