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Have a Berry Happy Fourth of July!

wolfgangBerry season is one of the most exciting times of year for me. I love to walk through farmers' markets right now and see all of the plump, wonderfully perfumed, gemlike varieties. At the fronts of their stalls, most growers have sample baskets to lure passersby, and of course I try them all before selecting those I think are sweetest and juiciest.

If I haven't eaten them by the time I get home, one of my favorite things to do with fresh berries is to prepare a crumble. This classic dessert is made by tossing the fruit with a little sugar and sweet spices; spreading it in a baking dish; scattering on a hand-crumbled mixture of flour, other grains, or nuts, sugar and butter; then baking the whole thing until the juices are syrupy and bubbly and the topping turns brown and crunchy.

Sound delicious?

And the great thing about making a crumble is that it's so quick and easy and its elements can be made in advance, ready to pop into the oven shortly before serving. Which, along with the fact that berries are so widely available right now, makes crumbles an ideal dessert to serve at your Fourth of July cookout.

Another thing I like about crumbles is that you can vary them endlessly, using different berries or a mixture of fruit, adding your choice of sweet spices, and varying the elements of the topping. The recipe here for Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble is a perfect example of that principle.

"But wait a minute," longtime devoted readers of this column might say. "Didn't Wolfgang give me a recipe for Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble five years ago?" In fact, yes, I did, but it was a different recipe, which perfectly illustrates my point.

The crumble I wrote about all those years ago included not only the berries and rhubarb but also butter, granulated sugar, flour, ground ginger, vanilla, and lemon juice. Its topping was made with butter, flour, brown sugar, rolled oats, and cinnamon. Sounds delicious, yes? A lot of home cooks thought so, too.

Since then, though, I've tasted and enjoyed all sorts of different crumbles, including a version shared with me last year by Sherry Yard, executive pastry chef at Spago Beverly Hills.

Sherry's recipe impressed me with the way it cooked the rhubarb in a mixture of apple juice, sugar, and vanilla bean, a mixture then thickened with cornstarch and flavored with hints of lemon and orange before the fruit is folded in. Then, in her topping as I had, she used almond meal and a hint of fleur de sel (flaky sea salt) to highlight the sweet flavors.

So try this new version for an old-fashioned crumble. (Serve with vanilla ice cream, if you like.) And have a happy Fourth!

STRAWBERRY-RHUBARB ALMOND CRUMBLE
Serves 6

CRUMBLE TOPPING:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup almond meal
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon fleur de sel (flaky sea salt)
4 ounces unsalted butter, thoroughly chilled, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

FRUIT FILLING:
1-1/2 cups organic apple juice
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped out and reserved
1-1/2 pounds (about 8 stalks) fresh organic rhubarb, thoroughly trimmed, peeled, and cut into 1-inch pieces
2-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 pound large ripe organic strawberries, hulled and quartered

Up to several hours ahead, make the topping. Put the flour, almond meal, confectioners' sugar, and fleur de sel in the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed just until thoroughly combined. Add the butter and continue mixing on low speed until the butter is thoroughly incorporated and the mixture resembles small pebbles, 2 to 3 minutes. (Alternatively, combine the dry ingredients in a food processor fitted with the stainless-steel blade, and then pulse in the butter until the mixture resembles small pebbles.) Remove the bowl and scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or waxed paper, spread the mixture on the sheet, cover loosely with more paper, and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the filling, combine the apple juice, 1 cup sugar, and vanilla bean and seeds in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, add the rhubarb, and cook until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the rhubarb from the pan to a bowl and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small bowl, stir together the remaining sugar and the cornstarch. Bring the liquid in the pan to a boil and whisk in the cornstarch-sugar mixture. Continue cooking over medium heat until the mixture has thickened. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and orange zest. Stir in the rhubarb and then the strawberries.

Transfer the fruit mixture to a shallow 1-quart baking dish. Scatter the crumble mixture on top. Bake the crumble until the topping is golden brown and the filling is bubbly, about 12 minutes.

Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, spooning the crumble into individual serving dishes.

(c) 2009 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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