Classic summer desserts made easy

I have a few minimal requirements for warm-weather desserts:

Must be light and fluffy and suitable for serving cold.

Must be super easy to make and serve.

Must not require you to use the oven for more than 30 minutes.

As it turns out, three favorite classic desserts — strawberry shortcake, banana pudding and lemon icebox pie — meet my rules for keeping cool and remaining lazy. Plus they are beautiful to look at, and almost everyone loves them.

Right now, at you-pick farms around Atlanta, you can find fresh strawberries full of lovely juices and nectar, waiting to saturate the strawberry shortcake of your dreams. Strawberry shortcake requires little more than good berries, whipped cream and cake, be it biscuit, shortcake, sponge cake, angel food cake or pound cake. The shortcake of my memory was made with little cup-shaped cakes that my mother bought at the grocery store. They were the ideal thing for holding strawberries and absorbing their liquid, and when you pulled them off the pasteboard packaging, they left a sticky imprint of buttery cake that could be rubbed off with your fingernails and nibbled. A guilty pleasure.

I wouldn’t know where to find those store-bought shortcakes today, so I had to get in the kitchen and come up with a suitable substitute. Pound cake is wonderful but doesn’t adhere to my 30-minute rule. What to do, what to do?

The answer appeared as I was flipping through Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart’s “Southern Biscuits” (Gibbs Smith, $21.99), the prelude to their “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” (Gibbs Smith, $45), which just won a James Beard Award. There I spotted Hayley Daen’s Brown Sugar Shortcakes. Turbinado or brown sugar gives the shortcakes a nice golden color and, if you cook them long enough, a crispy crust. Plus: They are easy to put together. No need for kneading and cutting out biscuits. Just dump the batter in a small iron skillet (or muffin pan).

Easy enough.

On to banana pudding: When this time-honored classic is pulled from the oven, the marriage of vanilla-flavored custard, vanilla wafers and banana is dreamy. But once the pudding cools, you can chill it, and the firm texture it acquires cold is equally good — especially on a scalding hot day. I’ve read about all kinds of fancy versions, including one by trendy pastry chefs Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito of the Brooklyn sweet shop Baked that calls for a base of caramel instead of the traditional pudding; it’s a multistep affair, documented in their book “Baked Elements” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $32.50). In his book, “Fire in My Belly” (Andrews McMeel, $40), Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie has a banana pudding that calls for pound cake instead of vanilla wafers. I fully intend to make both these decadent puddings. Just not right now.

The banana pudding I craved was the kind that I used to watch my grandmother, Nanny, put together at her kitchen table. It requires making a custard and meringue, but there is nothing difficult about it. It’s the same basic recipe that Southern grandmas have been using for years, and it turns out that my friend M. Elise Garner, a wonderful cook who owns a boutique culinary and event planning company called One Southern Foodie, has a Mississippi grandmother who makes a pudding to equal Nanny’s.

I tried Elise’s Mama Dot’s Banana Pudding and loved it. I simply dressed it up a bit for company by cooking it in Mason jars; it tastes just as good made in an oven-proof bowl or casserole, in which case you have space for more Nillas and Nanners, which is always a good idea.

Lemon icebox pie is a Southern classic that derives its essential magic from sweetened condensed milk. The sensation of that decadent milk with lemon or lime juice is like nothing else on earth. The pie is topped with whipped cream, so there is no extra cooking involved.

Because it calls for a crumb crust, you don’t have to roll pastry, either. The only question is whether to use a sweet or savory cracker for the crumb. Graham crackers are traditional, and I love Mississippi cookbook author Martha Foose’s version, which calls for the addition of a little cinnamon to the crust. You may also use saltines or Ritz crackers, though I have never tried the latter.

NPR recently ran a segment in which cookbook author Katie Workman extolled the virtues of a lemon pie she had at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C. The trick was that chef Bill Smith uses saltines for the crust of his Atlantic Beach Pie and sprinkles the whipped cream with a bit of sea salt. Makes sense, Smith says, because the pie is served at seafood restaurants on the North Carolina coast.

When I heard Workman waxing poetical about the pie, my first thought was, “Poor thing. She never had a lemon icebox pie before.” I rolled my eyes. Then I made it, and dang if she’s not right. I dare you not to devour at least a fourth of a pie in one sitting.

OK, OK. So it takes 34 minutes to bake the crust and pie. Mea culpa. I'm four minutes over my own self-imposed hot-weather bake time. I'll deal.

intro for inside:

3 quick and easy summer classics

Two of these desserts — the banana pudding and the lemon icebox pie — use a crumb crust, a technique that saves you from making pastry and heating up the oven. All three can be assembled quickly from ingredients found at the grocery store, making them perfect for summer-rental cookery.

Mama Dot’s Banana Pudding

This recipe came from M. Elise Garner of Atlanta, who got it from her grandmother Dorothy Ann “Dot” Garner of Booneville, Miss. If you don’t want to fool with the Mason jars, just use an oven-proof casserole.

Hands-on: 32 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Serves: 4

For the pudding

½ cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

3 egg yolks (save the whites for the meringue)

2 cups whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

32 vanilla wafers

2 ripe bananas

For the meringue

3 egg whites

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

pinch of salt

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the pudding: Mix sugar, flour and salt, and place in the top of a double boiler over medium heat. Whisk in egg yolks until well combined. Slowly pour in the milk, whisking all the while, and continue whisking until well mixed. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring or whisking constantly, until thick (about 10-13 minutes). Remove from heat. Whisk in vanilla extract.

If building in individual mason jars, place four half-pint jars on a heavy baking tray. Spoon a thin layer of pudding on the bottom of each jar. Top with a vanilla wafer. Cover wafer with another layer of pudding, followed by sliced bananas. Place three wafers around the sides of the jar, and continue layering pudding and bananas, making sure that the bananas are thoroughly covered with pudding mixture. (This will keep bananas from discoloring.) You may use a chopstick or small knife to help spread pudding and remove air bubbles. Leave about a half-inch of head space at the top of the jar. Crush about 12 vanilla wafers and sprinkle the crumbs on top of each jar. Set aside while you make the meringue.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

To make the meringue: Whip the egg whites until they start to thicken. Gradually add sugar, followed by a pinch of salt and the cream of tartar, and continue to whip until tall peaks form. Spoon the meringue over the top of each jar. (You will have enough for dramatic “domes” of meringue.) Bake exactly 12 minutes; the meringue should be lightly browned. Remove the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving. If you want to serve the pudding chilled, allow it to cool completely before refrigerating.

Note: If you are making the meringue in a single dish, be sure to use a deep oven-proof casserole (2 or 2½ quarts). Line the bottom and the sides with vanilla wafers, followed by layers of pudding, bananas and more wafers or crushed wafers if desired. (You may need more than 32 wafers and 1 more banana.) Top with meringue and bake as described.

Per serving: 555 calories (percent of calories from fat, 28), 12 grams protein, 89 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 18 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 176 milligrams cholesterol, 554 milligrams sodium.

Lemon Icebox Pie with Saltine Crust and Sea Salt

Hands-on: 15 minutes

Total time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (includes 30-minute cooling time for pie shell and 1 hour chill time for pie)

Serves: 6-8

This recipe is adapted from one by chef Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C. He calls his dessert Atlantic Beach Pie. You can use lemon or limes. One of these days, I am going to try it with grapefruit.

For the crust

1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers

1 stick softened butter

3 tablespoons sugar

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup lemon or lime juice or a mixture of the two

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon confectioner’s sugar

Lemon slices for garnish (optional)

Coarse sea salt

Crush saltines roughly with hands, and dump them into a food-processor bowl. Pulse a few times until the crackers are starting to crumble. Add butter and sugar and continue to pulse until fine. Don’t over-pulse; you want a bit of texture to the crumb — not dust. (As an alternate method, you may crush the crackers in a large bowl by hand, and knead in the butter and sugar with your hands.) Dump crumbs into an 8- or 9-inch pie pan, and press to form a pie shell. Chill for 15 minutes.

While the pie shell is chilling, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 18 minutes, or until the crust is beginning to brown.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks into the condensed milk; then beat in the citrus juice until the mixture is well combined. Pour into the shell and bake for 16 minutes, or until the filling has set. Allow the pie to cool on a wire rack, about 30 minutes.

Place heavy whipping cream in a medium mixing bowl and whip until the cream begins to set. Add confectioners sugar and whip until firm. (You may add a little sea salt to the whipped cream if desired). Carefully spread the whipped cream over the top of the pie, taking care not to break off crumbs. Garnish with lemon slices if desired. Chill for at least one hour before serving. The pie will slice better when it is quite cold. Slice and sprinkle each slice with a little sea salt if desired.

Per serving, based on 6: 900 calories (percent of calories from fat, 48), 15 grams protein, 103 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 48 grams fat (25 grams saturated), 260 milligrams cholesterol, 1,287 milligrams sodium.

Strawberry Shortcake

Hands-on: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Serves: 8

I like to pick strawberries at Southern Belle Farm in McDonough, where the concession stand sells shortcake made from pound cake. This shortcake is based on a recipe in Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart’s “Southern Biscuits” (Gibbs Smith, $21.99). If you are only making strawberry shortcake for four, you may freeze one cake for later or eat it for breakfast with jam. Do not chill the berries. Let let them sit out at room temperature, so that the sugar will break down and meld with the berry nectar. Instead of almond extract, you can use bourbon or any kind of booze to flavor the berries. In that case, use at least 1 tablespoon or to taste. Cointreau or Chambord would be lovely. So would a little lemon or orange juice and zest. Plain sugared berries are lovely, too.

2 pounds strawberries, washed, hulled and quartered

¾ cup granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon almond extract (optional)

2¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

1/3 cup turbinado sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for sprinkling (may use light or dark brown sugar)

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup chilled butter, cut into ½-inch pieces

1 cup buttermilk, plus more as needed

1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Place strawberries in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and almond flavoring. Stir to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside until ready to make shortcake. (Chill if they sit out for more than two hours.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place flour, turbinado sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl, and mix well with a fork. Scatter the butter over the flour, and work it into the flour with your fingers, until it is crumbly and no piece is larger than a pea. If this takes longer than 5 minutes, chill the bowl for 5 minutes before proceeding.

Make a well in the center of the bowl, and pour in buttermilk. Stir with a large rubber spatula or large metal spoon, using broad circular strokes to pull the flour quickly into the buttermilk. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If there is some flour remaining, add buttermilk 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough is moistened. If the dough is too wet, add a bit more flour.

Scrape the dough into two 6-inch skillets. (If you don’t have 6-inch skillets, you may use a large muffin pan, spooning batter into the pan with a greased ice-cream scoop.) Sprinkle top of each with 1 tablespoon of turbinado sugar. Bake on the top rack of the oven for 6 minutes; rotate pan so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and bake another 15 to 18 minutes, or until the shortcakes are golden brown and a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Allow the shortbread to cool for about 10 minutes.

Pour heavy whipping cream into a medium or large mixing bowl, and whip until it starts to set. Add confectioners sugar and continue to whip until stiff peaks form. (Note: you may add a drop or two of almond extract, vanilla extract or bourbon to the whipped cream.) Cover with plastic wrap and chill.

To assemble the shortcakes: Run a knife around each shortcake, and carefully remove from skillet. Using a serrated bread knife, slice each cake in half. Put cake bottoms on a large platter or serving stand. (You may need two plates or stands).

Pile strawberries over cakes, and cover with whipped cream. Top with the top half of the cake, and spoon on more strawberries and whipped cream. Serve immediately, with any leftover berries or cream on the side.

Per serving: 512 calories (percent of calories from fat, 43), 6 grams protein, 67 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 25 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 83 milligrams cholesterol, 423 milligrams sodium.