When we were kids, our summer holidays always involved a family trip up to the berry farms around Otaki and Levin, to pick berries for my mother's annual jam production. There was one roadside stall that sold fresh bowls of strawberries and cream, and this was our sole motivation as kids to get in the car and make the hour-long trip to the berry fields with our parents.
The ride itself was bad enough. Dad's precious Plymouth, which he had brought back from his time in America, had bench seats covered with a thick plastic-coated plaid and in the heat of summer this vile seat cover would soften and become cloyingly sticky. On any journey of more than about 20 minutes we would arrive in a slather of plasticky sweat.
And then there was the back-breaking task of picking bucket after bucket of berries. In those days we always ate as we picked - the growers knew that after quite a short time of gorging yourself you simply can't face another berry. Well, not a plain one without cream and sugar.
But the sweaty car ride and the sore backs were forgotten in the joyful pleasure of diving into bowls of fat red berries topped with lashings of chilled cream, icing sugar and sometimes, for a few extra cents, a scoop of the vanilla icecream the industrious roadside stall holder provided in a chilly bin. It was utter bliss. The berries were served in pretty china bowls and silver-plated spoons - no sign of anything plastic.
These days the berries and cream stand is long gone but the lingering memory of sun-ripened strawberries is enough to have me hurtling to a stop whenever I see a roadside berry stand. There's simply nothing that matches their ripe, just-picked taste.
The seasonal rhythm of the berry harvest kicks off in early spring with strawberries. These tend to flush from spring through January and then if you give the plants a haircut you can sometimes get an autumn harvest. Raspberries are next - starting in early December and running through for about six to eight weeks to late January. Some raspberry varieties will produce another harvest in autumn.
Blueberries come in many varieties and, of all the berries, their season runs the longest - starting in late spring and running well into the autumn. In the middle, around January, are the boysenberries - my favourites.
Once picked, berries will not ripen further and perish very quickly, so store any you aren't going to eat at once in the fridge, freeze them for later use in baking or smoothies, or turn them into jam.
Strawberry Cloud Cake
Ready in 15 mins + freezing
150g plain sweet biscuits
½ cup desiccated coconut
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
100g butter, melted
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
250g (1 punnet) ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
Fresh raspberries, strawberries or other berries, to garnish
Line the base of a 26-28cm springform cake tin with baking paper or waxed paper.
Make the base by putting the biscuits in a clean paper bag and crushing them into crumbs with a rolling pin. Transfer to a medium bowl, add the coconut, cinnamon and melted butter and stir well to combine. Alternatively, whizz them in a food processor then pulse in the coconut, cinnamon and butter. Press firmly into the base of the prepared tin. It doesn't need to be a thick layer - just enough to cover the bottom of the tin. Chill the base while you prepare the filling.
To make the filling, place egg whites, sugar, sliced strawberries, lemon juice and vanilla in the clean, dry bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on high speed until the mixture is very thick and fluffy and the sugar has dissolved (6-8 minutes). To test whether it is ready, rub a little between your fingers - you should not feel any gritty sugar. If you do, beat a little longer.
Spoon the filling over the chilled base (it should be so thick you have to push it into the corners of the tin), smooth the top, cover with a sheet of baking paper and freeze for at least 4 hours. It will keep in an airtight container in the freezer for up to a month.
To serve, remove from freezer and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish with fresh berries and serve immediately, cut into wedges using a knife that has been warmed in hot water.
Annabel says: This dreamy frozen dessert is one of my most popular recipes. It's basically a frozen meringue with berries beaten into it, set on top of a crunchy biscuit base. It softens on defrosting so keep it in the freezer until just before serving. Be sure to have the beater spotlessly clean and don't let any egg yolk break into the mixture as the meringue won't beat properly if it has any fat in it.
Dairy-Free Banana Berry Smoothie
1 cup frozen raspberries
1 cup apple juice
1 tsp honey
Slice banana into a blender, add frozen raspberries, apple juice and honey and whizz until smooth. Pour into a glass and enjoy immediately.
Annabel says: All berries freeze well. I usually pack them gently into an icecream container, but if they are a little soft or over-ripe, I freeze them on a tray and then free-flow them into bags, as otherwise they can stick together in a big clump. They're great to have on hand for smoothies. This recipe serves one but can easily be scaled up for more.
4 cups coconut water
¼ cup sugar
4½ tsp powdered gelatine
2-3 peaches or nectarines
2 punnets (250g) blueberries
Heat 3½ cups of the coconut water with sugar, stirring to dissolve. Remove from heat. Mix the remaining ½ cup coconut water with gelatine, stirring to ensure there are no lumps. Add to the hot coconut water mixture and stir until the gelatine is fully dissolved.
If using peaches, wet the skin then rub with a clean teatowel to remove most of the fuzz. Cut peaches or nectarines into 1cm wedges then divide with the blueberries between eight 1-cup capacity glasses. Divide the coconut water mixture between the glasses, cover and chill until needed (at least two hours or up to four days).
Annabel says: Coconut water makes a great jelly base to set fruit into, but if you prefer you can use fruit juice - just not pineapple or papaya juice as these contain an enzyme that prevents the gelatine from setting.