Back in 1878, a delegate of the Michigan Pomological Society bemoaned the sad state of strawberries "shoved into market before they are ripe. We know but little about the luscious ripe strawberry." After a hundred and forty years of relentless cultivation, I'd hate to know what he thinks of today's supermarket strawberries, much less those sold in the dead of winter.
Still, there are times when bakers have to work with what they've got, even if that's out of season fruit. Maybe it's a craving for strawberry shortcake that just won't quit, a special request from someone you love too much to deny, or nostalgia for certain holiday pairings—who can escape strawberries and chocolate on Valentine's Day? There's no reason to despair when working with lackluster winter strawberries, as long as you give them just a little TLC with these roasting and flavor-improving tricks. It works just as well in the summer, when it can make extraordinary fruit even more spectacular.
First up, wash the berries and trim off their leafy caps, but don't worry about cutting away the pale white flesh, this technique is designed to make the most of it all. Leave small to medium berries intact, but cut the largest ones in half. Transfer them to a glass or ceramic baking dish and sprinkle with plain or toasted sugar to taste; as a rule of thumb, I recommend about 3 1/2 ounces of sugar for every two pounds of fruit.
Add the juice of half a lemon to perk up the bland berries, plus an old vanilla pod if you've got one stuck in a bag of sugar somewhere—its muted aroma is the perfect way to breathe new life into underripe strawberries. Don't bother to split a fresh bean just for the occasion, since its full bodied aroma will totally overwhelm the fruit flavor (you can partially make up for the difference with a single drop of vanilla extract later on).
Toss the mixture to combine, then roast at 375°F until tender and juicy, about 30 minutes.
The exact timing can vary depending on the dimensions and conductivity of a given roasting dish, so play it safe and keep a close eye on the strawberries to make sure they don't cook down into a pile of mush. After roasting, I doctor the strawberries with a small splash of rose water to mimic the floral notes of perfect summer fruit.
Done right, no one will be able to identify the rose flavor by name; it becomes nothing more than the certain je ne sais quoi of aromatic summer fruit.
Serve the juicy strawberries and syrup with creamy desserts like panna cotta and a no-bake cheesecake, or refrigerate overnight for a jammy topping to spoon over yeast-raised waffles and English muffins.
Once all the berries are gone, don't dream of tossing out that ruby syrup! It's brilliant as a fruity variation in cocktails such as the French 75, as a sweetener for tea, or simply splashed into a glass of club soda. Plus, it freezes like a dream so you can save that sweet sip of summer brightness for another day.