Whether you're entertaining family and friends at home, or you've been invited to a backyard barbecue or picnic somewhere else, I'm sure you're already thinking about what you're going to cook and eat.

One of my best strategies for planning food for a summer celebration is to keep things simple. People going to a cookout or other party expect the all-American basics of hot dogs and hamburgers. That's certainly what I want to eat. Of course, I'll make sure they're the best-quality burgers and franks I can find -- sometimes varying the standards just a bit by expanding their definitions to include items like delicious fresh sausages or ground turkey. I'll season the burgers well, too, and be sure to include some excellent cheeses to top them. I'll probably grill some onion slices and other vegetables to go with them. And the buns, briefly toasted on the grill before serving, will be good bakery products rather than bland and anonymous white spongy stuff.

So much for the main course. Where I really like to get creative is with dessert.

For summer celebrations, that means berries. These beautiful, juicy summer fruits are at their absolute peak right now, not just in fresh-picked seasonal quality but also in their variety. Go to any good farmers' market and you'll probably see a surprising array of berries as dazzling as treasure chests full of jewels in Aladdin's cave. Red and white or golden raspberries. Strawberries big and small. Plump blueberries as big and round as marbles. Luscious blackberries and boysenberries that look like they're ready to explode with juice.

This warm-weather bounty is just begging to be turned into a dessert for your spread. And their variety of colors -- including various shades of red, white (or at least golden), and blue -- make them perfect for a finish to your meal.

One of my favorite ways to feature berries is incredibly simple to make for a party: sandwiching the fresh fruit on a bed of whipped cream between layers of puff pastry.

Bake and split the individual pastry squares in advance, and whip and chill the whipped cream, and you have all the elements ready to assemble at the last minute. That's American ingenuity at its best.

Red, White & Blue Berries in Puff Pastry

Makes 12

1 pound store-bought frozen puff pastry, thawed following package directions

2 cage-free eggs

2 tablespoons cold water

2 cups heavy cream, well chilled

1/4 cup Grand Marnier or other orange-based liqueur such as Cointreau, curacao or triple sec

1 pint fresh organic raspberries

1 pint fresh organic white or golden raspberries

1 pint fresh organic blueberries

Set a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Meanwhile, on a lightly floured work surface, use a rolling pin to roll out half of the puff pastry to form a rectangle slightly larger than 6 by 9 inches and about 3/8 inch thick. With a pastry cutter or a sharp knife, cut the pastry into six squares measuring 3 by 3 inches each. Place them on a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining puff pastry.

In a small mixing bowl, lightly beat together the eggs and water. Use a pastry brush to brush this egg wash over the tops of the puff pastry squares, taking care not to let it drip onto the baking sheet and carefully wiping up any stray drips.

Put the baking sheet in the oven on the middle rack and bake for 5 minutes. Reduce the oven setting to 350 degrees F. and continue baking until the pastry is nicely puffed and golden brown, about 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through that time for even baking.

While the pastry is baking, put the cream in a chilled mixing bowl. Using hand-held electric beaters on medium speed, beat the cream until it is thick enough to form soft peaks that droop slightly when the beaters are lifted out. While still beating briefly, drizzle in the Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur just until incorporated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time.

When the pastry is done baking, remove the baking sheet from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack. When the pastry squares have cooled completely, use a sharp serrated knife to carefully slice each square horizontally in half. If not serving right away, store the pastry squares in an airtight container at cool room temperature.

Just before serving time, place the bottom halves of the pastry squares on individual plates or on a serving platter. Generously spoon the chilled whipped cream on top. Arrange the three kinds of berries in stripes or another attractive pattern on top of the berries. Rest the top halves of the pastries leaning against the berries and cream. Pass any remaining berries and whipped cream on the side. Serve immediately.

Puff Pastry, French Dessert Pastry, French Dessert


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Red, White and Blue Berries in Puff Pastry

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