We often hear that people who are good in the kitchen are either great cooks or great bakers, but not often both. Of the two, I’m far more comfortable and fluent in savory dishes than in sweet ones. Given the choice between a cheese plate and chocolate cake for dessert, I’ll take the cheese every time. I’ve also derided the nonsense that is dessert-for-breakfast on here a time or two. Give me huevos rancheros, oeufs en cocotte, peasant breakfast, even leftover spaghetti pie (true story).
Perhaps part of this is from growing up cooking from a feeling and baking from a box. Unless my dad was making pies, in which case I served as a passable kitchen hand when it came to sugaring the fruit. He learned this, and how to can pretty much anything, from his mother, Jean.
Gramma Jean’s ability to make an apple pie, or strawberry jam, or soft white bread with her eyes closed and one hand behind her back only served to render baked goods more mythical; recipes with apocryphal origin stories, passed down from and to people infinitely more patient and capable than me. It was a world I assumed I’d never be able to inhabit: allergic to measuring since my small spirit contracted with the universe to be impatient and impulsive. I hang pictures by squinting, I cook sauces by feeling their weight against my spoon, and tasting, and listening, I break down chickens and push into pork shoulders by letting the bones and grain tell me where to go.
HOWEVER. Gramma Jean also taught me to pick fruit in Niagara County. Hunting under leaves for little jewel strawberries in her back garden, tickling blueberry bushes with a bucket in her lap, relieving apple trees of their weight. For as much fruit as we snuck in the orchards, what we took home still overwhelmed our capacity to eat it all before it became too soft, too ripe. From our bounty, Gramma made oceans of jams, jellies, pies, cakes, juice, and sauce.
I dabble in pies, but only really tackle them in the fall, amping myself up for the project by enlisting my sister and lending pomp to the whole event by calling it our Annual Pie Lab. The cakes I do make tend to be of the pound variety – sort of vanilla, or olive oil, or just all the butter – so I can sneak a snack without sticky fingers, or put together a serviceable, pretty dessert in about three minutes. I still don’t do full-on jams or jellies yet, but y’all know my Mason jar game is strong. All this points to compotes: a fruit topping/condiment/goo that is as at home on a piece of warm cake as it is swirled into plain yogurt, or a tiny spoonful tucked into your one-year-old’s oatmeal to introduce him to ginger/cardamom/rose, cooked down with sugar and whatever other flavors you like, and residing in your fridge until you’ve licked the jar clean.
I made Yossy Arefi‘s spiced rhubarb compote recently, from her gorgeous new book, Sweeter Off the Vine, and it sent my mind whirling on dozens of tangents, wondering about which fruit could be best friends with which spice, which extract, which herb. I’ve got a whole messy worksheet of ideas that I hope to cook from this whole summer.
Since Spring finally seems uninterested in changing its mind, and we’re finally seeing proper soft fruit in the Midwest, I knew my first stop had to be strawberries. Nothing’s ever as good as the shiny, tiny babies from Gramma’s backyard (OKAY, unless you are in France), but I found some pretty solid stand-ins recently and stocked up. Some will be Jack’s lunch for the next week, but I saved a bunch for this compote. It’s rounded out with vanilla bean and then – I don’t have a more appropriate word than enchanted – with the tiniest dose of rosewater. I confess that it’s good enough to get me on sweet breakfasts for the next week. Maybe more.
- One pound of strawberries
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon rosewater
- Half of a vanilla bean
Special equipment: clean jar or airtight glass container
Wash and hull the strawberries. Depending on their size, cut them in half or quarters. It doesn’t matter too much, as these will cook down, but I do like to keep some little pieces intact.
Place the strawberries in a saucepan, then add sugar, rosewater, and the vanilla seeds (scraped out) and pod. Stir briefly to just combine. Cover with a lid or towel for about 2 hours to macerate.
Next, cook the mixture – let it come to a boil first, then simmer for 15-20 minutes. You’re looking for it to thicken and for the fruit to break down. If you’d like a smoother compote, you can gently mash the berries against the side of the pan, but they’ll also break down well with the heat.
Remove the pod, then pour the mixture (carefully!) into a jar or glass container and let cool. Cover and refrigerate. This keeps for at least a week in the fridge, but don’t miss out on a warm spoonful when it’s fresh out of the pan – even if it’s just for yourself.