Mulberries to Muffins, or Not
Now that we have firmly established that mulberries are utterly delicious, the experimenting has begun. Here I offer heartfelt gratitude to Christ Church Cathedral, which owns the mulberry tree 50 feet from my backdoor. In 2009, after a wind storm did terrible damage to the tree, the committee responsible for the Church's Old Episcopal Burying Ground debated the tree's future, and ultimately let it live. The tree has recovered, and this year offers a huge bounty of sweet fruit—plenty for experimenting with mulberry uses.
I learned a week ago from an experienced farmer that mulberries are not harvested by picking them one at a time, but rather are shaken onto a clean cloth or piece of plastic on the ground. I tried this, with quite a few hearty plonks as berries landed on my head on their way to the tablecloth I had spread below.
The shaking harvest technique definitely speeds everything right up. Using shake-and-capture, I gathered enough to try baking with these beautiful berries. Results, I have to report, are mixed, perhaps because the mulberry flavor is subtly sweet, lacking a bitter or acid undertone. It could be that the lack of complex or "dark" flavors means mulberries do not become more intensely flavored when cooked. Although mulberries resemble blackberries visually—and wild blackberries, at least, demand cooking to release their full flavor—it may be that we should put mulberries in the same category as strawberries: fruits that are best eaten ripe and fresh, uncooked, immediately after picking.
Or it may be that I have yet to discover a good cooked mulberry preparation. Ol' google does not offer up the usual millions of options where mulberries are concerned. One does wonder how we ever let these delicious, easy to grow, apparently pest free fruit trees fall beneath our awareness as sumptuous food, but we did. Now we get to relearn what our great-grandparents probably took for granted: the uses of mulberries.
I tried adding today's harvest to corn muffins using sister-in-law Janice Kay's fine Corn Muffin recipe. After I shook down the tree, just as is the case when picking individual berries, nearly ever berry retains a small, thin stem. When eating the berries fresh, this stem is barely noticeable. It does not have a particular flavor and is so tender it sort of disappears into the berry during chewing. For cooked muffins, though, I feared the stems would be noticeable as a texture that was unappetizing. So I snipped them off, using scissors.
See the difference?
After I made the muffins, I found a few suggestions on the internet about mulberry stems, including advice on when stem removal is necessary and one set of challenging instructions about first freezing the berries on a cookie sheet before pulling out their stems. It sounds as though the long internal stem comes out with this method, but wouldn't it be miserably cold?
My system was messy, and certainly not fast. Scissors!
I made the muffins for our weekly Cornbread Supper. I have learned over recent weeks that the considerable group of children who come to Cornbread Supper particularly like Janice's muffins with berry add-ins. Because of the children, I make quite small muffins, stretching the batter from Janice's recommended eight muffins to 12. Each muffin ends up being just about two-bite size, if adults are doing the biting.
Today's muffins cooling on a rack...
And on the table for Cornbread Supper:
The abundant early mulberry crop this year has made it easy and fun to experiment. If you are in a climate and season similar to Kentucky's, look around you on sidewalks and streets this week. If you see purple stains, look up. You may have found your own mulberry tree, full of berries that are ripe for the picking. And maybe baking or cooking: you try, taste, and decide.
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