This summer’s heat is breaking records, but summer birthday parties, strawberry festivals, picnics and family celebrations are once again on our dance cards. Celebratory meals call for special desserts, but it’s too hot for baking fussy layer cakes or putting together pastry for pies and, with summer berries at their peak, you shouldn’t have to. Fresh berries, so full of bright flavors and color, are standouts with the simplest treatment.

Shortcake is the dessert that first comes to mind around here: berries and juice ladled over a simple biscuit or cake and topped with clouds of sweetened whipped cream. For a recent birthday shortcake
I made a three-ingredient Italian sponge cake: eggs, sugar, and flour — no baking powder, no butter, no oil, and no dairy. The most onerous task was beating the eggs for the cake until they were thick and pale yellow, and the result was a moist sponge that could be topped with berries of all kinds and cream, in this case, strawberries that had been sliced and sugared, set aside until the sugar drew out their juice. Preparing the berries and whipping cream can be done while the sponge bakes and you’ll be out of the kitchen in the shortest time possible, ready for all that a fine summer day has to offer.

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12 cup + 112 Tbsp. granulated sugar
4 extra large eggs at room temperature
pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup + 1 Tbsp. flour
For shortcake:
1 quart fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced, sprinkled with 34 cup sugar
2 cups whipping cream, beaten with 1⁄4 cup sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla

Take the eggs out of the refrigerator ahead of time, as the eggs need to be at room temperature, or soak them for a few minutes in a bowl of warm water. Preheat the oven to 340 degrees F. Butter and flour the bottom of an eight-inch springform pan. Put eggs, sugar and salt and vanilla in mixing bowl and beat until very fluffy and pale yellow, about 15 minutes. To tell if the mixture has been beaten enough, let a small amount of batter fall into the bowl; if it remains sitting on top, it’s ready. Sift flour on top of the egg mixture a little at a time, and fold in gently with a wooden spoon. Pour batter into prepared pan. Don’t smooth top or bang pan on the counter. Bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Do not open the oven for the first 30 minutes.Turn off the oven but leave cake inside, keeping the door slightly open, using a wooden spoon, for 10 minutes so it can cool down slowly. Remove cake from oven, let cool for 10 more minutes on a wire rack, then loosen around the edges with a knife, remove sides and let cool completely. When ready to serve, top with berries and cream.

Chocolate and berries are always a winning combination. For a rich chocolate no-bake tart to sit beneath a mound of summer berries, use an Oreo cookie crust (hint: there are several brands of organic Oreo-type cookies).

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Chocolate Cookie Crust:
1 package Oreos or similar chocolate sandwich cookies, about 36
1 stick butter, melted
Ganache Filling:
Three 4 oz. baking chocolate bars, semi-sweet and/or bittersweet (use combination to suit your taste)
112 cups heavy cream
Ganache Topping:
1 pint sliced strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or a combination

For crust: place Oreos in bowl of a food processor and pulse until fine crumbs. Transfer crumbs to a medium bowl, add melted butter and mix until well combined. Press mixture onto the bottom and up the sides of an 11-inch tart pan. Place crust in refrigerator to firm for one hour before adding filling.

For ganache: coarsely chop chocolate bars and place in a heat-proof bowl. In a small saucepan, bring cream just to a boil over medium-high heat. Pour cream over chocolate and let stand for two to three minutes, until chocolate has softened. Slowly whisk mixture until smooth and chocolate is melted and shiny.

Pour filling into prepared cookie crust. Place in fridge until set, four to six hours or overnight. When ganache is set, top tart with berries and sprinkle with chocolate shavings, or flaky sea salt if desired.

The simplest berry dessert is an old New England favorite: summer pudding, a combination of seasonal berries, bread and some sugar for sweetening, pressed into a mold and chilled. Traditionally, a pitcher of heavy cream was passed at serving time, but in these days of universal refrigeration, sweetened whipped cream is always an option.

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34 cup sugar
juice of one lemon
5 cups washed blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and cherries (pitted and halved)
10 slices very firm, day-old white bread

Wash and prepare fruit. Place fruit in a saucepan and add sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and simmer for about two minutes, just until sugar dissolves. Turn off heat and let cool. Place a glass bowl on top of a bread slice and use that as a template to fit in the bottom. Dip bread circle into berry juice and place in bowl juice side down. Cut bread slices in half diagonally and continue dipping slices into berry juice, lining the bowl and fitting the slices tightly together so there aren’t any gaps. When bowl is lined, use a slotted spoon to take berries out of the pan and put them into the bread-lined mold. Then cover top with more bread dipped in juice. Fit a plate inside the bowl, then place a weight of some sort (a couple of cans of food will do) on the plate. You want to press the pudding together so that it will set up. Chill until firm, at least six hours or overnight. To serve, remove weights and plate and run a knife around the edge of the bowl. Place a plate on top and flip (carefully). Garnish with whipped cream or pass a pitcher of cream.