Friday, February 22, 2013

Winter Baking with Canned and Frozen Fruit

These days, we can generally get a variety of fruits and vegetables year-round due to long distance shipping and air freight. But buying produce out of season never quite tastes as good, and there is growing environmental concern over the energy used to get that food to us in the dead of winter. For all of these reasons, I try to use fruits and vegetables IN SEASON. Canned and frozen fruits can be a good substitute, especially since they are often picked at peak season before they go into a can or a freezer.

Which fruits are good canned or frozen, and which ones should we just wait to have them fresh? Are there special steps to take before baking with frozen or canned fruits that is different from using fresh? Here is a guide to baking with canned or frozen fruits:

Blueberries - Blueberries are available frozen all year round. They are also available canned, but often the canned ones come in a sweetened syrup. For pies, muffins, breads, and pancakes, I recommend using frozen berries. Spread them out on a paper towel and let them thaw, then use in the recipe as if they were fresh. If popping them into breads and muffins, you often don't even have to thaw them - follow your particular recipe. Canned blueberries (if you can find them in just water) should be rinsed and spread on paper towels to dry before using. I do not like how mushy the canned ones are, so I would only recommend them for items where the filling is all going to mush together like a jam anyway (blueberry bars, etc.) I do not use canned berries for any baked item where I want to see the individual berries (i.e. muffins).

Strawberries - Strawberries are available frozen. They get mushy after they've been frozen, so use them in things where they can be made into a syrup or a jam-like layer in bars and coffee cakes. The other great use for strawberries is to cut or mash them, macerate them in sugar, then puree them. Use this puree in strawberry cakes, cupcakes or buttercreams: Strawberry Butter Cake

Raspberries - Raspberries are widely available frozen. Since they tend to be mushy after freezing, you won't be able to use them as a lovely garnish on cakes, but you can still make them into a filling for bars, cakes, pastries, or to be mixed into frostings. For frosting and cake filling, I actually prefer to use a jar of good-quality seedless raspberry JAM instead. Make sure to get SEEDLESS.

Cherries - Sour cherries (the ones that give cherry pie its signature tartness) are rarely available in my area, even during their brief season. And since I have not found sour cherries frozen in my area, I am always forced to use canned. OreGon brand water-packed tart cherries make a good pie, just drain them and then make the filling according to your recipe. Dark Sweet cherries are widely available frozen, and these are great for baking as well. They are sweet, not tart like sour cherries. You don't always have to thaw them before using, but follow the specific instructions according to the recipe. (For example, if you are making a pie, they will thaw during the macerating phase, so you don't need to pre-thaw them.)

Squash/Pumpkin - You can cook your own and freeze it for later use, but to be honest, I love using canned pumpkin and canned squash. (NOT pumpkin pie filling in a can, but just plain cooked pumpkin or squash). Although it is not difficult to cook them yourself (and it does add a layer of flavor, especially if you roast the squash), canned has several benefits: First, you can always have a can on hand, just sitting in your cupboard, ready any time to make breads, cakes, muffins and pies. Second, it cuts down a lot on your prep time. Cooking pumpkin/squash may not be difficult, but it takes time. It usually adds a good hour on to your prep time. I do cook some pumpkin each year when the sugar pumpkins are in season, but on the whole this is one time when the difference in flavor is not dramatic enough for me to feel guilty about using canned most of the time.

Bananas - You may find bananas frozen, or you can freeze ripe ones yourself.I love to keep some frozen bananas on hand because it is hard to get ripe ones at the store. To freeze them, just peel the bananas and wrap in air-tight bags or a double layer of plastic wrap. Bananas do turn brown, but for Banana bread, muffins or cake this is fine. When you are ready to bake, just thaw and mash the bananas and use according to your recipe. Generally, three small bananas is about 1 cup when mashed.

Lemons / Limes - You can generally find lemons and limes year-round in your grocery store. But if not, a good substitute can be a jar of good-quality Lemon Curd (available in the jam aisle) for making tarts or filled pastries. If your recipe just calls for the juice, bottled lemon and key lime juice is available (usually in the juice or drink-mix aisle).

Apple Butter / Apple Jam -  I am lucky enough to have a couple of family members who like to make jams and apple butters. This year I made a delicious apple butter cake with a jar of homemade apple butter. Apples are widely available raw year-round, but you may find the quality and selection is not good off-season. So using Apple Butter, Apple Jam, or Homemade Apple Sauce may be a better choice druing the winter, depending on what you are baking.