The most over-the-top thing I ever did with a berry was make this enormous, elaborate creation for our annual Christmas Eve party--Rose Levy Beranbaum's Chocolate Raspberry Trifle. By the time I'd bought all the ingredients (including several bars of Lindt Excellence bittersweet chocolate, six pints of fresh raspberries at mid-winter prices, and a bottle of Chambord liqueur), I was easily $75 in the hole. And the recipe itself, which runs a full four pages in Rose's glossy cookbook, is actually four separate recipes: the moist chocolate genoise, the raspberry soaking syrup, the creme anglaise, and the raspberry jam cream topping.
It only took a day of my life--more like a day and a half, actually. The finishing touches involved my teenaged daughter wielding a pastry bag to squeeze out perfect rosettes of the pink-tinted jam cream, each rosette topped with a carefully pre-selected raspberry. The results? Well, the guests literally gasped when I brought it forth. My husband took a picture of me holding it, a smile of pride (and relief) on my face. And it tasted simply, absolutely divine.
At the time I intended to show off with multiple repeat performances. But given the realities of the investment of time and money, I haven't made it since. (Should you care to take the plunge yourself, you can find the recipe on page 246 of Rose's Celebrations, William Morrow and Co., 1992.) In fact, this spring we've been pouring a bit of the remaining Chambord over bowls of cut up, slightly sugared strawberries and then finishing them off with a hit of plain heavy cream, just glugged out of the container, not even whipped. And truth to tell, this 30-second dessert (ok, five minutes if you count quartering the bigger berries) tastes delicious and looks quite elegant. If you were to pick up some designer chocolate or a package of shortbread to serve on the side, why, you'd have something more than acceptable to serve to guests.
Which brings me around to the point of this piece--my affection for simple berry desserts. The berry season in our household kicks off with strawberries in early May. This is the fruit of which Dr. William Butler famously wrote in the 17th century, "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did." And when my early-rising husband Dan comes home before 8 a.m. with a fresh-picked flat of God's best berries, we know exactly what to do--break out the Bisquick and make a shortcake using the recipe on the box. It's best to split the warm cakes in half before filling them with sliced, sugared berries (sugaring berries and letting them stand a bit brings out their natural juices), and if you whip some cream for the top you have shortcake nirvana.
Finally, and always all too soon, the North Carolina strawberry season is over. Fortunately for my family, most summers we vacation in Vermont, and if you travel north that time of year, you travel back in time, right back to strawberry season. In fact, if the planetary alignment cooperates, sometimes we arrive on the cusp between strawberry and raspberry seasons. One year when this magic overlap occurred, we celebrated with what is undoubtedly our No. 1 most frequently made berry dessert, loosely adapted from the blueberry cobbler in Jane Brody's Good Food Book.
Dan has the recipe memorized, and if I had any kind of a decent memory, I would, too. Anyway, that particular cobbler, made with both sweet, small, last-of-the-season strawberries and lusciously just-ripe red raspberries, eaten piping hot from the oven and under the stars, lives on as one of my personal great food memories.
The recipe? Here it is, hardly a recipe at all. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter. While it's melting, mix together 2/3 cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar (I like to use part brown sugar; light brown is especially good), 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and a little salt if you like (I don't). Stir in 2/3 cup milk (anything from skim to whole works fine). Pour the butter and then the batter into a small casserole or baking dish of some sort. Sprinkle a couple cups of berries on top--blueberries, strawberries, raspberries or a combination. If the berries are very juicy, you may want to use less. We've even used peaches. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes, until lightly browned. The recipe can be doubled. It goes without saying whipped or ice cream is never unwelcome.
And then (no disrespect to Jane's cobbler intended) there are my two all-time favorite berry cakes, the ones I make in Vermont every summer, the ones I can't separate from the pleasure of being in the summer kitchen on a July evening, with just the most basic of kitchen tools at my disposal. Okay, at some point my mother did buy a $10 hand-held mixer at the local department store (now defunct--the store, that is, not the mixer), and yes, I did spring for an oven thermometer as the discrepancy between what the oven dial says and how hot the oven actually is gets more unpredictable every year. But otherwise, it's just me and a few measuring cups and spoons, the cool evening breeze blowing in from the open windows.
One recipe calls for raspberries, the other blueberries; both are easy, homey desserts; both are extremely good. Both are better with whipped cream (and in Springfield, Vt., you can get Vermont Jersey cream from the food co-op. Jersey cows give milk with the highest percentage of butterfat; the cream is so thick and rich and yellowy it almost whips itself). The raspberries--both red and black varieties--are picked by any and all of us at Cherry Hill Farm, a short walk up the hill from our house; my husband (the early riser, remember?) usually does the honors for the blueberries, driving at daybreak to a farm at nearby Fox Chair Mountain. The only thing he has to remember is that the blueberry farmer is a Seventh Day Adventist who celebrates the Sabbath on Saturday--so just don't show up there on a Saturday morning and expect to pick any blueberries. No problem--that still leaves six days a week for fresh-baked blueberry cake.
Blueberry crunch coffeecake
A biscuity cake slightly adapted from the latest edition of Joy of Cooking
Lavishly butter the bottom of the pan. Combine 1/4 cup (or more if you love almonds like me) slivered almonds (preferably toasted first), and 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar . Sprinkle this in the bottom of the pan.
Whisk together the dry ingredients:
1 1/2 cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
With two knives or a pastry blender, cut in 5 tablespoons cold butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Whisk together in another bowl: 1 egg, 1/2 cup milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Pour this over the flour mixture and stir gently until partially moistened. Then add a generous cup of blueberries and fold in just till the ingredients are moistened--don't overmix!
Spread the batter in the pan and bake at 350 degrees until done, about 55 to 60 minutes. (My memory is that it cooks a lot more quickly than that; I'd check sooner, after 25 minutes or so, depending on your oven.)
Let cool on a rack for 5 or 10 minutes, run a knife around the pan, and invert onto the rack, then gently invert onto another rack or a plate so the almond-sugar mixture is on top.
If there are any almonds and sugar left in the pan, artfully arrange them on the top of the cake--it doesn't have to look perfect; this is a homestyle dessert, remember?
Fresh raspberry cake
I found this at the Durham Public Library in a charming book of recipes from the American Northwest, Dungeness Crabs and Blackberry Cobblers.
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup sugar, divided -- 3/4 cup and 1/4 cup
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt (I don't bother with it.)
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups fresh raspberries
Cream the butter and 3/4 cup sugar. Add egg and beat well. Mix the dry ingredients together and add alternately to the creamed mixture with the buttermilk. Pour into a buttered and floured 9-inch square pan and cover with the raspberries. Sprinkle with the 1/4 cup sugar and bake until done, for 45 to 50 minutes at 350 degrees. (I can't remember if this cooks faster than that or not.) It's best served warm straight from the pan. And if you have some Chambord left over from making that Chocolate Raspberry Trifle, by all means add a bit to your sweetened whipped cream.