It may be jumping the gun a bit, but right now I say we need some of the inimitable magic that only comes from a raspberry. Here on the prairies, it’s a summer fruit, available from late June into August and on into the fall (I’ve picked raspberries at Broxburn Farms well into September). However, Washington State provides the rest of the U.S. with easily 60 per cent of its raspberries and some of their finest make their way to us as early as late spring. Eschew the winter raspberry from Chile and environs, I know you can wait.

There is an undisputed consensus among all the raspberry gurus whose opinions I sought, that fresh ripe raspberries simply served with cream (go local and use Vital Green heavy cream, lightly whipped) is hands down the way to go. Be that as it may, another reason to glorify the humble raspberry is that even frozen, especially in baking, it is almost as versatile as fresh. Whether you are finishing up frozen berries from last year’s bounty or just can’t wait for the canes in your yard to bear fruit, when you want a raspberry, you want a raspberry! We will see our own homegrown berries soon enough – for now, let’s indulge in a little pre-summer raspberry fantasy.

Fresh raspberries

Fresh raspberries

Jazz up your berries and cream for company with sugared phyllo baskets.

Take 4 sheets of thawed phyllo pastry and brush each layer with melted butter. Sprinkle each layer with sugar, ending with sugar on the top. Cut the pastry into 12 squares and press each square into a buttered muffin tin cup. Bake in a preheated 350 oven for 7-9 minutes until golden and crisp. Cool and then fill with whipped cream, top with fresh raspberries, and garnish with a sprig of mint.

It’s true they are a fragile fruit, primarily when picked ripe, so taking a careful look at the berries you buy is paramount. It takes an eagle-eye to detect a hint of mold in the stem cavity and stained packaging means crushed berries. When you get them home, spread the berries out on paper towels and pick out any moldy berries, stems and leaves. If you aren’t going to eat them that day, they can be refrigerated for a day or two (not optimal), but consider freezing them in their prime to use in any number of ways. Spread the berries out on a tray and freeze. Collect the frozen berries in a bag or container and pop back in the freezer for future delights.

Raspberries, fresh or frozen, can be added to scones, muffins and coffee cakes; they make excellent pies, alone, with other berries or with a favourite summer partner, fresh peaches; fools, crumbles and cobblers are always an option as are puddings, crème brulée, crème caramel, panna cotta and cheesecakes; and berry sauces, shrubs and vinegar don’t even come close to completing the list. Raspberries love chocolate, add panache to a smoothie and make stellar margaritas. Unlike most other berries, raspberries are rich in pectin making
them a go-to for jams and jelly, with seeds or without.

Raspberries grow wild in all the cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere. I grew up with an ice cream pail tethered around my neck, picking raspberries and saskatoons every year on the prairies. I can testify that picking raspberries from a tall cane in a farmed u-pick environment or backyard patch is a lot easier than stooping for the low-growing natives – the berries are bigger and that burst of nothing-like-a-raspberry is just as addictive. My grandfather would have argued that the wild ones are free for the picking, but so are the ones you were clever enough to plant against the back fence.

Another ridiculously easy preparation is a kind of trifle-like affair without all the fuss. Make a fool by folding lightly crushed raspberries into whipped cream. Lightly toast large cubes of angel food cake, sprinkle sparingly (no soggy cake!) with a nice sherry or a little brandy and loosely assemble layers of cake and fool in pretty glasses.

One last favourite… raspberry vinegar. I make it every couple of years to use on summer salads, to mix with soda and gin and to gift to special friends. Easy to make, it quickly becomes something you can’t do without.

Simply dissolve ½ cup sugar in 4 cups Champagne vinegar, white wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar over medium heat. Don’t boil. Pour the hot vinegar over 3 cups fresh clean raspberries in a large jar. Seal and let sit at room temperature for 2 days, then strain through a fine sieve. If you want a clear vinegar, don’t press the solids, but being of a thriftier tribe, I like to extract as much of the nectar as possible and don’t overly care about the clarity. I keep it in the refrigerator.