Meet the Honorable Rubus allegheniensis: State Fruit of Kentucky (and get some whipped cream ready)
In 2014, when I finished the first good draft of Classic Kentucky Meals, I had written 40 percent more text, recipes, tips, stories, and Kentucky food-farm-farmer chatter than the publisher would allow. I had wanted to write extensively about blackberries, long a fascination of mine, shared to some extent by the built-in Gardener, as told here.
Classic Kentucky Meals ended up featuring a fine recipe called State Fruit Crisp, a lightly sweetened, easy way to enjoy blackberries and other summer fruits. It's part of a luscious meal called "Country Splendor." But I had more to say about blackberries, Kentucky's official state fruit since 2004, so I will say some of it now, in the middle of the 2015 blackberry season. (I will share a version of the crisp recipe and more, below.)
I like to try to imagine the number of wild blackberry vines in Kentucky. I get to trillions fairly quickly. Wild blackberries sustained many Kentucky households as a nearly free, sweet dessert and source of winter calories for decades. Both my father’s family in Wayne County and my mother’s family nearly 200 miles away in Magoffin County had depended on canned wild blackberries for winter food. When my teetotaling father was 95, he told me that his parents had made a little blackberry wine each year. Although the purpose was medicinal, it was not quite just medicinal, unless we consider sheer enjoyment medicinal—and I do! Dad said, remembering the annual occasion when the blackberry wine matured enough for tasting, “I never liked it. But they did.”
Today Kentuckians can have their wild blackberries in the short early July season, and then have fresh cultivated blackberries too, for much of July and August. The softer, juicier, larger cultivated berries taste delicious straight from the vine and are plenty good in baked desserts. The wild ones are best sweetened and cooked a little so their flavors can bloom.
Those wild blackberry flavors boast a complexity that the cultivated berries lack. To put it brutally: among the many flavors in wild blackberries, bitterness makes a strong appearance. Bitterness, poorly understood, lacks fans among American palates, except perhaps in coffee and hoppy beer. That could be changing. Think of the recent popularity of Brussels sprouts, which retain a hint of bracing bitterness even when superbly cooked. For evidence of the presence of bitterness in Kentucky cuisine, I think of the popularity of greens (also a topic I take up, city and country style, in Classic Kentucky Meals) and burnt sugar desserts.
Bitter works best and appeals to more palates when offset by other flavors, especially sour (the vinegar on those turnip greens) and sweet (that sorghum in your morning coffee). I recommend against sweetening either kind of blackberry dessert to the point of dumbing down the other flavors. Use a combination of sweeteners—natural ones like honey, maple syrup and sorghum—to get a wider range of sweet tastes with less actual added sweetener. Add a little sourness by including lemon juice and zest. Then trust to the unctuousness of a lightly sweetened whipped cream to tone down a bit of the bitterness. Take all these steps together and wild blackberry desserts can be less sweetened, less problematic for health, and still scrumptious.
To the promised recipes! These are easier than making a classic Lattice-Top Blackberry Pie, which, it bears saying, rewards the time and effort required.
- In a large bowl, gently place 5-6 cups fresh wild blackberries (or a mix of berries). Add 2 tablespoons each of Kentucky sorghum, maple syrup and honey, plus 1 tablespoon white or brown sugar, or double up on the sweeteners you have on hand to total a scant 1/2 cup for a crisp that leans toward tart. Add a bit more sweetening if you like. For slightly thickened juices, add a tablespoon of either small pearl tapioca, regular or gluten free flour, cornstarch, or tapioca flour. Use hands or large spoons to mix together, gently. Let the berries and sugar stand while you make the topping.
- I usually make crisp topping without a recipe, but in roughly these proportions: scant 1/2 cup unbleached flour or gluten-free flour mix, 2 Tablespoons sugar, 2 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, a sprinkle of good salt. Add 1/8 teaspoon allspice or cinnamon if you like. Mix with the fingers until crumbly, or load into a food processor and pulse about seven times, until the largest crumbs are the size of small peas.
- Butter or spray a standard pie plate or any non-aluminum baking dish that easily contains the juicy berries. Put the berries in the dish and sprinkle with the topping. Bake at 375 for 50–60 minutes, until the top shows many spots of thick bubbly juice, and some dots of topping have turned light golden brown. Serve with lightly sweetened sour cream, homemade whipped cream, or a combination of both. Also quite edible with vanilla or cinnamon ice cream, particularly if homemade.
Easy Soft Blackberry Cobbler
Full disclosure: this is not my favorite style of cobbler, but so many Kentuckians know and love it that it must be good. I think of this as more cake-like, similar to a blackberry buckle, and not a classic juicy cobbler.
- Turn on the oven to 350 degrees. Put a stick of unsalted butter in a square 8 inch or 9 inch glass baking pan, and put in the oven to melt as the oven heats.
- In a medium bowl, mix 1 cup unbleached flour, 1 cup white sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir in one cup milk just until barely mixed. Take the baking dish out of the oven, and put the batter into it. Top with 6 cups of fresh wild blackberries. Bake 50-60 minutes. The batter will rise up through the fruit.
- Hundreds of variations exist for this cobbler, including the addition of a couple of tablespoons of white, stone-ground cornmeal, one or two eggs, buttermilk instead of regular milk, lemon zest, spices, and more. Have fun experimenting.
Not-A-Recipe: Blackberry Dumplings
My favorite childhood blackberry dish—provided we agree that childhood extends until at least one's mid-40s— was blackberry "dumplings" made this way: cook a quart of sweetened blackberries in a saucepan until they boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer, and drop in bits of either pie crust or biscuit dough. Cover the pan with a lid. The dumplings finish in about six minutes. They represent a busy farm cook's easiest way to make a dessert while finishing the rest of the meal. They work perfectly with canned or frozen berries, and they don't require turning on the oven. They taste wonderful served with sweetened sour cream, homemade whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream. These dumplings are soft all the way through, as children (of all ages) like things.
Had a busy cook who had extra dough left from other food for a big farmhouse meal dropped the requisite dough onto berries in a baking dish, sprinkled on a little sugar and butter and stuck the dish into a 375 degree oven for 30–45 minutes, we would call that a cobbler, and we would like it oh so much, too.
Bonus: I haven't tried this yet. You can go first. I suspect you will experience blackberry cobbler ecstasy: swap in blackberries for the blueberries in this Blueberry Caramel Skillet Cobbler from The Bitten Word, the popular, fun, DC-based blog in which Zach Patton and Kentuckian Clay Dunn open the food magazines they receive, pick recipes that appeal, cook the recipes and then show-and-tell us the results. Pay attention to The Bitten Word each October. After cooking magazines send their Thanksgiving issues in the fall, and well before most of us have given turkey or tofurky a thought, Clay and Zach stage and report on Fakesgiving, an epic early test of the newest Thanksgiving recipes. In other words, they cook an elaborate, celebratory meal for about 20 people, usually serving at least 20 dishes they have prepared for the first time. They then describe and rate each dish. We benefit by choosing our own new Thanksgiving dishes based on their recommendations.
Let me know if you try a blackberry version of the caramel skillet cobbler, please!