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story.lead_photo.caption Neapolitan Cake With Fresh Strawberries layers chocolate and vanilla cake with sweetened, stabilized whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Arkansas strawberries are darn near perfect this year — plump, juicy and sweet — needing little to no adornment to be enjoyed. And after three flats we still haven't eaten our fill. We plan to keep it up until we do or the season runs out, whichever comes first.

Our favorite way to enjoy these luscious beauties, aside from straight up with a light rinse, is in strawberry shortcake. No recipe is needed, really. Hull and slice or quarter fresh berries, sprinkle with a little sugar and maybe some lemon juice if we're feeling uppity and mash lightly.

Spoon over shortcake — we aren't picky about the cake part, those little dessert shells sold in the produce department, pound cake, angel food cake, biscuits, shortbread cookies, baked pie crust, Ritz crackers, really almost any pastry will do — and top with fresh whipped cream, or your favorite whipped topping. When the berries are good, like this year, we don't even bother to sweeten the cream, just whip it and pile it on. We like a high berries-to-cake ratio, but that's really up to you.

We also like to stash some berries away for those sad days when the season is over — infusing vinegar, flavoring vodka and more.

For a showstopping shortcake, this Neapolitan cake will surely get the job done. It calls for cake mix, but you could absolutely make the cake from scratch using your favorite sponge cake recipe. For step-by-step assembly photos, click here.

Neapolitan Cake With Fresh Strawberries

For the cake:

3 eggs, divided use

½ (15.25-ounce) box white cake mix (about 1 ½ cups)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract, divided use

4 tablespoons PLUS 1 ½ teaspoons vegetable oil, divided use

½ (15.25-ounce) box dark chocolate cake mix such as devil's food or chocolate fudge (about 1 ½ cups)

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

For the filling:

3 tablespoons cold water

1 envelope unflavored gelatin (scant tablespoon)

3 cups heavy cream, well chilled

4 tablespoons sugar, plus more for berries, or to taste

2 pounds fresh strawberries, (for about 6 cups prepared)

1 tablespoon shaved chocolate (use a vegetable peeler)

Fresh mint leaves, optional garnish

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom and sides of a half-sheet pan (jellyroll) with parchment paper.

Separate 2 of the eggs.

For the vanilla batter:

In a medium bowl, combine the white cake mix, the 2 egg whites, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, 2 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil and ½ cup water with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium and beat 2 minutes more.

For the chocolate cake:

In a separate mixing bowl, combine the chocolate cake mix, the whole egg, the 2 egg yolks, the espresso powder, remaining vanilla, the remaining 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and ½ cup water; beat on low speed 30 seconds, then on medium speed for 2 minutes; set aside.

Pour the chocolate batter down the length of one side of the prepared sheet pan. Pour the vanilla batter down the length of the empty side, so that the pan is filled with chocolate batter on one half and vanilla batter on the other half. Use a rubber spatula to spread the batter into an even layer being careful not to mix the batters.

Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched in center. Let cake cool completely.

To remove cake, line a cookie sheet (or the back of a rimmed baking sheet) with parchment paper and place pan, paper side down, on cooled cake and quickly invert the cake onto the clean parchment. Remove parchment from bottom of baked cake.

Slide the cake on the parchment onto a large cutting board or other knife-proof surface. Trim edges from cake on all sides and cut cake crosswise into three 5 ½ -by-12-inch pieces so that each piece is half chocolate and half vanilla.

For the filling:

Put the cold water in a small microwave-safe bowl; sprinkle gelatin over water and let stand 1 minute or until water is absorbed. Microwave gelatin on 100% power for 30 seconds.

Beat the cream with a balloon whisk or an electric mixture until thickened and slightly billowy. Gradually beat in sugar, then, beating constantly, slowly pour in the gelatin mixture and beat to firm peaks.

Set aside a few of the prettiest, smallest berries. Hull and quarter or slice the remaining berries. Sweeten to taste with a bit of sugar, if needed.

Gallery: Neapolitan Cake With Fresh Strawberries Assembly

To assemble: Place one cake layer on a serving platter and layer with about 1 ½ cups of the whipped cream or a third of the berries, using an offset spatula to spread the whipped cream. (It is up to you which order you place the whipped cream and the berries; if you prefer the juice from the berries to soak into the cake, layer the berries first and top them with whipped cream.) Place a second cake layer over the strawberries and whipped cream, rotating the cake so the chocolate side is above the vanilla layer on the bottom. Spread with 1 ½ cups of the cream and top with a third of the strawberries. Place the remaining cake layer on top, lining it up with the first layer. Top with remaining berries and whipped cream. Refrigerate until ready to serve, but no more than a few hours. Just before serving, sprinkle with shaved chocolate and garnish with reserved whole berries and mint, if desired.

Makes about 8 servings.

Recipe inspired by Marbled, Swirled and Layered by Irvin Lin

Strawberry-Infused Vodka combined with club soda or tonic water is light and refreshing and a little boozy.

Serve this vibrant red vodka over ice with club soda or tonic water for a spiked strawberry soda or use it in your favorite vodka cocktail.

Strawberry-Infused Vodka

1 ¼ pounds strawberries, hulled and quartered

5 black peppercorns, optional

1 (750-mL) bottle vodka

Combine berries and peppercorns in an airtight container; add vodka and stir. Steep for 3 to 7 days, swirling or agitating jar daily. Strain, bottle and chill. Use within 3 months.

Makes about 750 milliliters.

Recipe adapted from Sean Timberlake of Punk Domestics via David Lebovitz

Strawberry Curd with whipped cream fills a purchased dessert shell for a simple dessert.

This strawberry curd — just like lemon curd, but strawberry — is delicious spread on biscuits or spooned over cake or crunchy meringues.

Strawberry Curd

1 cup pureed strawberries

2 tablespoons lemon juice

4 tablespoons butter, softened

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 egg PLUS 2 egg yolks (see note)

Pinch of salt (omit if using salted butter)

In a small saucepan, combine the berry puree and lemon juice; bring to a boil over medium-high heat; reduce heat and simmer until juice is reduced to about ¾ cup. Cool.

In a large glass or stainless-steel bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the egg and yolks, one at a time, beating on low speed until well combined. Increase speed to medium and beat 1 minute. Beating on low speed, drizzle in the cooled juice. The mixture will look curdled, but don't worry, this is OK.

Add enough water to a medium saucepan to fill by 1 inch. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to a bare simmer. Place the bowl with the juice mixture over the simmering water. Whisking constantly, cook mixture until it is smooth and thick, this could take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. The mixture is ready when it is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon and running your finger through it leaves a trail.

Cover the curd with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic to the surface of the curd and refrigerate until well chilled. Use within one week or freeze for up to two months.

Makes about 1 ½ cups.

Note: Use the egg whites to make crunchy meringues. In a large bowl, beat the whites with an electric mixer until frothy, then add ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar; beat 30 seconds, then slowly add ½ cup granulated sugar, beating to stiff, glossy peaks. Spoon or pipe into mounds and bake for 90 minutes at 225 degrees. Cool completely.

Strawberry-Elderflower Granita

Fresh strawberries and elderflower make a delightful combination. If you have an ice-cream maker — churn this mixture for a smooth sorbet. Or, if you don't have an ice-cream maker, turn it into a slushy granita by freezing (and scraping) the mixture in a pan.

Strawberry-Elderflower Sorbet/Granita

½ cup sugar

¼ cup boiling-hot water

1 pound strawberries, hulled

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons St. Germain Elderflower liqueur OR nonalcoholic elderflower syrup

Combine the sugar and boiling water in small bowl and stir until sugar dissolves; set side.

In a blender or food processor, combine berries and lemon juice and puree until smooth. Add the sugar syrup and St. Germain and blend well. Refrigerate until well chilled.

Freeze mixture in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Then transfer to a freezer container and freeze solid. Let soften a few minutes before serving.

Alternatively, if you don't have an ice-cream maker, use the mixture to make granita or popsicles. For granita, pour mixture into a 9-by-13-inch glass dish or metal pan and freeze until icy around edges, about 25 minutes. Using fork, stir icy portions into middle of pan. Freeze until mixture is frozen, stirring edges into center every 20 to 30 minutes, about 1 ½ hours. Using fork, scrape granita into flaky crystals. Cover tightly and freeze. For popsicles, pour mixture into popsicle molds or paper cups and freeze 1 hour, insert sticks and freeze until solid.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

This vinegar is wonderful in vinaigrette.

Strawberry-Infused Vinegar

1 pound strawberries, hulled and quartered

1 cup white vinegar

½ cup unseasoned rice vinegar

¼cup granulated sugar

Place berries in an airtight container. Whisk together the vinegars and sugar. Pour over berries. Cover and refrigerate 48 to 72 hours. Strain, discarding solids, and transfer to a clean jar. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Makes about 1 ½ cups.

Food on 05/08/2019

Print Headline: RECIPES: Five ways to savor Arkansas strawberries

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