I was five years old, in kindergarten, when I received an invitation for my first sleep-over party. I am sure I was excited – but I mostly remember feeling confused that someone would be having a birthday party so late in the year. I suppose I must have known that people’s birthdays happened year round, but with mine and my brother Dan’s just one day apart and right in the thick of summer it had always felt like birthdays were a seasonal event. There were ‘the holidays’, and then there were ‘the birthdays’ – and six months later, the cycle would begin again. Dan and I always celebrated our birthdays together back then, each year bringing multiple parties between the two of us. Pool parties, backyard barbecues, playground gatherings – we shared friends and family and cake and ice cream.
Eventually I had two more brothers, both with winter birthdays, and Dan and I would each have our own party. But I have never quite shaken the feeling that birthday parties should involve bathing suits and sunblock, that birthday cakes should be piled high with summer berries and drifts of cream.
This year, we spent part of the birthday weekend with Dan and his family at my dad and stepmom’s house. There were leisurely walks and bike rides, The Running of the Sprinklers, reading, beer sampling, hammock-sleeping and much lollygagging about. My dad and stepmom hosted a delicious birthday brunch and extraordinary birthday dinner for us. (See a few photos down below – and no, I still do not like lobster, but my brother Dan loves it – so my dad grilled it. He also made Padron peppers for me ;) ). And there was cake.
When I was young, our birthday shortcakes at Dad’s house came from Berkeley Bowl. Crumbly, butter-rich, and barely sweetened, they were more scone than cake. They came four to a pack in cellophane bags, and I was known to eat a whole pack if the opportunity arose. When the berries and softly whipped, unsweetened cream were piled up over and around them, they were sturdy enough to hold up to the assault but softened and gave just a touch where the berry juices seeped into them.
It was in 2000 (I checked the recipe in her binder!) that my stepmom started making a shortcake recipe from Sunset magazine – it has been with the family ever since. It has a hint of citrus and a little more pop than the old cakes, but has the same crumbly-dry crumb that is enhanced rather than muddied by the berry juices and cream.
After 24 years of prodding, my stepmom has finally come around to sweetening (just barely) the softly whipped cream. This year, with her garden boxes overflowing with ripe red berries, I made a quick strawberry-balsamic-basil sauce (pectin free and not quite jam-thick) to moisten the cakes just slightly before heaping the cream and berries over top. It added a little zingy, herby bite that I loved. More than cutting through the other flavors, it harmonized with them, adding a high note over top of the low richness of the cream and the sugary sweet pop of the berries.
My stepmom tells me she ate leftover sauce the next day on a chicken sandwich and it was “AMAZING.” I imagine it would also make a great grilling marinade, or a treat swirled over some melon slices.
I think my next experiment will be trying it mixed with yogurt and frozen into a pop – my guys have been crazy for those lately. I’m working to try and make sure they find a little extra summer magic. After all, they may not be big enough for sleep-overs yet, but they should experience the joy of backyard parties – they should know what a real birthday cake tastes like!
Even if they don’t actually have summer birthdays. ‘Tis the season!
Strawberry-Balsamic Sauce (or jam) with Basil
I have been on a basil-infusing rampage ever since that infamous day with Ann and Eleanor. But I realized that I have not actually posted a recipe here using the little trick – so, instead of a twelve-year-old shortcake recipe, you are getting this barely-a-recipe sauce/jam instead. Happy birthday to you :)
If you are making a jam that is not to be preserved, you can play fast and loose with the sugar ratio, not worry so much about pectin, and generally experiment with have-you-whats. All that to say, this sauce is not meant to be preserved (‘canned’) – but it will keep, in the fridge or freezer, very nicely for some time.
2-3 pints strawberries, green caps removed
2/3 cup sugar
Splash of balsamic vinegar (1-2 teaspoons)
Leaves from one stem of basil (still attached to stem – this makes it easier to fish them out)
Heat berries and sugar over medium heat, stirring occasionally and mashing berries slightly to get juices flowing. Keep heating until the mixture reaches a rolling boil. Let boil for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until sauce thickens and darkens slightly. If you want it to thicken into a jam-thickness, use a thermometer to measure the temperature until it reaches 220 F (should be about fifteen minutes). I did not want it quite that thick so stopped around ten minutes, when it was somewhere in between a drizzle and a spread).
Remove from heat, and stir in the vinegar. Stir in the basil, and let it sit for 5 minutes so the flavor can infuse. Remove the basil. Put in containers and keep in fridge or freezer, or serve warm over shortcakes (or ice cream, or melon slices, or yogurt, or …?)
Yield: this recipe made one pint jar plus one delicate little serving bowl of sauce.
A few birthday memories are below … happy birthday to Dan! (and to me :)