Summer doesn't often inspire us to crank up the oven. But some dishes can make it worth enduring the heat.
Berries and peaches light up with just a touch of heat, and tomatoes become even sweeter. And what picnic would be complete without a juicy pie or some big, chunky cookies?
To help you along, a few new cookbooks show you how to make the most of summer's bounty.
"The Sono Baking Company Cookbook," for example, folds plump summer blueberries into tender, sour cream muffins. And chunky, chocolate-stuffed kitchen sink cookies practically scream "picnic." But it's really the book's savories that set it apart.
Baker John Barricelli nestles sweet kernels of corn against luscious crabmeat in a decadent French tart, and creates a Jarlsberg-topped cobbler of red, yellow and orange cherry tomatoes. If you live in a place where leeks and asparagus are still popping, show them off in his custardy leek, asparagus and corn tart.
Vegetarian cooking guru Deborah Madison also has worked as a pastry chef. And she has put her knowledge to good use in "Seasonal Fruit Desserts," a book stocked with no-fuss desserts that exploit summer's just-from-the-farm sweetness.
"Fruit lends itself to improvisation," she says. "If it's really delicious to start with it gives you so many possibilities."
Some of her simplest desserts require no baking at all: plums are gently sauteed with a touch of cardamom, while the hollows of fat summer melons are filled with berries, wine and herbs. If you do turn on the oven, a berry and peach cobbler gets crunch from corn flour, and easy folded pies are filled with grapes or mulberries, blackberries and other summer treats. A right-side-up cake piled with fresh fruit and just a touch of butter offers a lighter take on the traditional buttery-sweet upside down cake.
David Lebovitz's "Ready for Dessert" promises visceral satisfaction starting with the cover, which invites you to drag a greedy finger through a cake's thick chocolate icing. Inside, almond cookies become cobbler crusts and Guinness-spiked gingerbread gets topped with lime frosting.
Even classics get just a little extra kick, like a nectarine-raspberry upside-down cake with a gingerbread base. For those days when peaches practically ooze their juice at the farm stand, Lebovitz proposes peach mascarpone semifreddo, a frozen peaches-and-cream given a subtle crunch by crushed amaretti cookies.
This simple, seasonal cake (consider it an upside-down upside-down cake) from Deborah Madison's "Seasonal Fruit Desserts" is made entirely in the food processor. She said it is sturdy enough to support a layer of fresh berries, pitted cherries, huckleberries, sliced peaches, quartered apricots or cut-up pineapple.
Start to finish: 2 hours (1 hour active)
Butter, for coating the pan
All-purpose flour, for dusting the pan
For the topping:
1 1/2 cups fruit (chopped if large)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
For the cake:
3 1/2 ounces almond paste
2/3 cup granulated sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
2/3 cup corn flour
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar, for dusting
Heat the oven to 375 F. Coat a 5-by-8-inch springform pan with butter and flour. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper, then butter that, as well.
In a medium bowl, toss the fruit with the sugar, then set aside.
In a food processor, combine the almond paste and sugar. Pulse until evenly combined. Add the butter and pulse until well combined. With the machine running, add the eggs, one at a time, until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add the vanilla and almond extracts, and the sour cream. Blend until smooth.
In a medium bowl, mix the corn flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder and salt. Add half of the dry ingredient to the processor and pulse 3 times. Add the second half and pulse 3 times again. Scrape the bowl to make sure everything is well combined, then give it 3 or 4 more pulses.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out the top. Pile the fruit over the top. Bake in the center of the oven until lightly browned and springy when pressed with a fingertip, about 1 hour or slightly longer.
Let stand for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan. Dust with powdered sugar. Let cool to room temperature before slicing.
• Servings: 8
Source: Deborah Madison's "Seasonal Fruit Desserts," Broadway Books, 2010.