strawberry balsamic & black pepper sauce

strawberry balsamic & black pepper sauce | the merry gourmet

I baked a pie on March 7th, the day of my father’s funeral. It was four weeks before I cooked or baked again.

I went back to work four days after Dad’s funeral, and I know now that that was probably too soon. I should have taken another week off, to allow myself to come to terms with my grief. Instead, I went back to work on a Tuesday, one of my busiest clinic days. I entered each patient room with a painful new understanding of what a Hospice referral really meant, and what the impending death — and the agonizing reality of death — of a loved one felt like.

The weeks since have gotten easier, at least on the surface. At night, though, I dream of my father. The content of the dreams varies, but in each one, he is alive again. And in each one, I know that he is going to die within days, and that I will have to go through his death another time. I know that some people find comfort in dreaming of deceased relatives, but at this point in the process, I would just be grateful to not dream at all.

strawberry balsamic & black pepper sauce | the merry gourmet

Until this weekend, I have been unable to cook or bake anything. I have been overwhelmed by the possibilities and by the level of energy needed to prepare a meal or bake something sweet. I have felt uninspired and apathetic.

This began to change a little over a week ago.  We took the kids to New York for the tail end of spring break, and on one of the nights we were there, a wonderful friend prepared a slow-cooked Korean pork dish complete with all the fixings – kimchi, pickles, rice, and sauces. The meal was excellent, and what made it even better was the friends gathered around the table sharing it.

I’ve looked up that pork recipe several times since then; I’m determined to recreate it one day soon. And a few days ago, I began reading some of my food magazines that have been stacking up on the coffee table, neglected for weeks.

strawberry balsamic & black pepper sauce | the merry gourmet

After four weeks away from the stove, I cooked dinner two nights ago. It was a simple meal – pan-roasted sausages and apples with spinach – but it was home cooked, and it wasn’t takeout Chinese or a Domino’s pizza. Making a meal in my kitchen finally felt right again.

Saturday, we went strawberry picking. The day was gorgeous and sunny, and I wore sunscreen for the first time this year. I knew that we’d come home with more strawberries than we could possibly eat, and we did. Seventeen pounds, in fact. Over the past two days, I made this strawberry balsamic and black pepper sauce, and this was soon followed by strawberry shortcakes and strawberry jam. I even broke out the ice cream maker to make strawberry ice cream.

I still feel like something is missing inside, like some core part of me is lost or broken. But with each completed dish I turned out this weekend, it finally feels as if I’m slowly patching myself back up, one recipe at a time.

strawberry balsamic & black pepper sauce | the merry gourmet

Yield: 1-1/2 cups

Strawberry Balsamic and Black Pepper Sauce

This dessert sauce can be used as a topping for ice cream, mixed into a milkshake, drizzled on top of pancakes, or spooned onto a biscuit. Or, do what I did and eat it right off the spoon.


1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
12 ounces strawberries, hulled and coarsely chopped
4 or 5 grinds of freshly ground black pepper
1 pinch kosher salt


In a large saucepan or skillet, heat the vinegar and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture thickens, approximately 1 minute. Add the strawberries and black pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook for 7-9 minutes, until the strawberries have broken down but not fully turned to mush. Stir in salt, remove from heat, and allow to cool.

When the sauce is room temperature (or at least not hot), transfer to a blender and puree until smooth. If desired, you may strain the mixture to remove seeds.

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20 Responses to “death, the book thief, and a recipe: sour cherry buttercream frosting”

  1. Gail — January 26, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    You’ve helped those souls make peace and say goodbye, you know.


    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — January 26th, 2014 @ 7:30 pm

      I hope so, Gail. I sure hope so.

  2. No need for jealousy MJ. YOUR words are beautiful too.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — January 26th, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

      Thank you so much for that, Mardi. Thank you.

  3. Wendi @ Bon Appetit Hon — January 26, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

    MJ, what you do takes more courage and strength than I can imagine. I’ve held one of those hands as news that was dreaded, but not unexpected, was delivered. Today would have been my dad’s birthday. And the Universe has been dropping gifts in my lap today….words from people who never knew him but who are using their voice so he can speak to me. Thank you for delivering the message that I needed to hear today.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — January 26th, 2014 @ 7:32 pm

      Oh, Wendi. I know how you must miss your father. Sending you hugs today. xo

  4. dejavucook — January 26, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    MJ, Thank you for such a beautiful post. I have been thinking a lot about some wonderful souls lately. I’m at an age that when I have to sit down with the Dr. after my yearly exam I am ready for all the bad news and somehow it has not come yet. But I am ready, the family is not. I would love to read a book written by you regarding these transitions in today’s generation filled with so many differences from our pasts. And I will be making that frosting soon, I think for a white chocolate cake.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — January 26th, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

      Thank you so much, Kathleen. Writing a book is a dream of mine, and that would make a wonderful topic. I hope that all is well with you. Sending hugs!

  5. Bea — January 26, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    MJ, as you know I can certainly empathize with you. Nursing is not for the faint of heart,but as you know it’s also a most rewarding occupation. I had some long restless nights but it would be offset by the rewards of knowing that you helped that one person who needed you most. More often than not it was the unspoken word between us. I found that baking made my life easier when remembering the ones you lost as well as the ones you touched in some small way. I love your frosting, but am wondering about the amount. It looks like more than enough for just 2 cakes?

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — January 26th, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

      So very rewarding. You are so correct.
      As for the frosting, I tend to frost with a very generous hand. I also like to have extra on hand, just in case. This would probably be enough for a three layer cake for some people, especially those who frost with a lighter hand than I do.

  6. Macaroni Mama — January 26, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

    A lovely post Merry Jennifer. I don’t know how you do all that you do. <3

  7. DessertForTwo — January 27, 2014 @ 7:58 am

    I always ask myself how you do your job. It seems so emotionally draining. I’m grateful that you do your job.

    Thanks for the book rec. I’ve been needing a new one.

  8. cherie — January 27, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    You are such a blessing to this world, do you realize that? Thank you, just for going on every day the best you can.

  9. Mimi — January 27, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

    Lovely post. An absolutely beautiful cake!

  10. Being in a health care field and seeing this everyday, its so hard to forget wonderful souls. I will be checking that book out.

  11. Paula — January 27, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    Both of my parents’ passings were peaceful and I’m so grateful for that. Grateful that they were both accepting of death (their acceptance helped all of their children take the journey as far as they could with them before letting go for the last time) and grateful that their dying was as serene as possible due in no small part to the compassionate palliative care that they had. I think it is a blessing, as it was for us with our parents’ physicians and nursing staff, that the patients you tend do with such deep caring had (have) the opportunity to be blessed by having you as their physician.

  12. Michael Procopio — January 28, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

    “Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.” I love this quote. I love this post. I also love that I now have another book to read.

  13. Laura — January 30, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    This was beautiful. I’m sorry that you’ve had to share so much bad news lately, but if your writing is a hint of what your spoken words are, you share that bad news with heart and grace. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Di — February 3, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    This was a very moving post, Merry Jennifer. I loved The Book Thief; it grabbed me from page one. I studied so many passages, was as enamored with the way Zusak turned a phrase as you were and and was so sad when I finally reached the end. His characters were all so alive; he was so cleverly deft at developing them. It was a haunting story and the people born from his pages stayed with me for a long time. It maybe time for a re-read and a piece of that delicious cake!

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