Last winter was a terrible time to be a strawberry in California — and maybe an even worse time to be a strawberry farmer.
At Harry’s Berries in Oxnard, Calif., the rain came down so hard it flattened acres of strawberry beds “like pancakes,” said the operations manager, Kristopher Gean, whose grandfather Harry Iwamoto started the farm more than 50 years ago. Each bed had to be dug up by hand, costing the farm more than $100,000 in labor.
Even then, the berries that survived to make it to market were bloated, insipid and expensive. “Everyone on Instagram was complaining: ‘These berries don’t taste that good,’” Mr. Gean said. “And they were right.”
From January to March, bad weather and bland berries were the rule for farmers across California, who grow about 85 percent of the commercial strawberries in the United States. And the devastated crops, with their low yields, astronomically drove up prices for any berries you could find.
Things have finally turned around: California berries are back on the market, sweet as ever, and at a more reasonable cost. Strawberries from other regions are also becoming available as the weather warms, making their scarlet way into farmers’ markets and supermarkets across the country.
And what better way to celebrate their return than with a berry-laden dessert?
While many strawberry-filled baked goods get a little soggy from the raw berries weeping moisture into the crumb or crust, these three new recipes are different. They treat the berries before baking — simmering, roasting or macerating them — to condense their juices and allow them to hold up better in pastries and cakes.
This elegant, flaky tart simmers the strawberries briefly in a sugar syrup until they glisten like rubies. Then, they’re arranged on top of a tangy cream cheese mixture spread on a sheet of puff pastry. The tart emerges from the oven with a crisp, buttery crust that stays that way for hours, perfect for making ahead.
Macerating the berries in sugar before baking them into biscuits prevents them from becoming gummy. Then, you can sandwich those biscuits around more macerated berries and whipped cream for the fruitiest, juiciest double strawberry shortcakes imaginable, with poppy seeds for extra crunch.
Last but not least, in these tender almond cakes, rich with browned butter, the berries are briefly roasted before being mixed into the batter, for an intense flavor and caramelized juices that lend an extra jammy vividness.
These techniques will help any berries show their best, and they’re also great to keep in your back pocket for next winter, in case bad weather and bland berries return.
But right now, this year’s berries are ripe and ready for all your baking and beyond.
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