Pick Your Own Berries
Enjoy the extravagance of berries without the supermarket price
Fresh berries look so gorgeous in the supermarket, glossy and colorful and tempting, but it is fairly common to pick up a half-pint, look at the price, and set them down again. They seem like such an extravagance. I think that somewhere in our collective unconscious, we think they should be free. We think we should just be able to go pick them, and that we should have lots and lots ... more than we can eat!
This inner urge toward quarts and quarts of fresh berries has led me to pick my own every year for the last several years. While I know of no place where they can be picked for free, there are several places near Austin where you can go and pick berries to your heart's content. The berries are fresher and much cheaper than at the store, plus you get to have the fun of picking them.
The sense of opulence, of total luxury – when you open the fridge and see pints and pints of glossy purple blackberries and pale-frosted blueberries, when you add handfuls of fresh berries to your cereal without a thought, when you serve up a homemade berry pie or cobbler – is magnificent. If this sounds like your kind of thing, here are some nearby places where you can pick your own berries:
(Important note: This seems like the kind of thing that would be fun to do with your kids. It isn't. I strongly discourage bringing children, especially toddlers. They get bored in three seconds and usually get badly scratched by briars. Also, wear a hat, and the earlier in the morning you go, the happier you will be.)
Sweet Berry Farm, Marble Falls830/798-1462, firstname.lastname@example.org
8am-5:30pm, weekdays (closed Wednesdays); Sunday, 1-5pm
Blackberries through June. Always call first to make sure it's a good day to come (you don't want to drive all the way out there if they're all picked out!).
Sweet Berry Farm, Lexington979/773-2200
Friday-Saturday, 8am-5:30pm; Sunday, 1-5pm
Always call first to make sure it's a good day to come (Fridays are best).
McKemie Homegrown, Dale512/764-2122, email@example.com,
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday-Sunday, 9am-noon
Blackberries, also peaches, okra, zucchini, and other crops in season (by appointment). They like prospective customers to join their mailing list (via the website) to get the best info on picking. Blackberries are $8 for a 5-quart box.
Chickamaw Farm, McDade512/567-3456
Organic certified blackberries and blueberries. Picking is primarily on weekends; call first no matter what! (They have dogs.)
Kingsbury's Black and Blue, Caldwell979/567-9138
Blackberries and blueberries. Call first for berry availability; mornings and evenings are the best times. The blueberries are looking great this year and can be picked through July.
Why should I make blackberry jelly instead of jam, when jam is easier and usually makes more? That's what I thought too, until I made blackberry jam. You see, blackberries have tons of little tiny seeds in them. When you are eating fresh blackberries, you don't notice the seeds. But when you cook blackberries, they become really noticeable, and when you make blackberry jam out of the whole fruit, the seeds give the jam a really unpleasant texture. By straining the cooked blackberries and using only the juice, you get all the flavor without the weird texture. It is completely worth the extra trouble.
Just about every jelly recipe says right up front: Do not try to double recipe; work in small batches. When you have a lot of berries, it seems ridiculous to make one pint of jelly at a time. Trust me: it isn't. What is ridiculous is ending up with eight pints of jelly that won't gel, because you doubled (or quadrupled) the recipe. (And no, blackberry syrup does not have all kinds of uses!)
What I do is render the juice all at once, let it strain overnight, and then make the jelly in small batches the next day.
This recipe calls for a jelly bag; I have never seen a jelly bag for sale at HEB, although I am sure you can order one online. You can just make one, though, using cheesecloth and a rubber band (HEB does sell cheesecloth; it is over by the canning jars).
The addition of tart apples gives this recipe enough pectin to gel without adding commercial pectin. If you don't have a lot of underripe blackberries in your haul, just add two more apples.
(Also: Don't reduce the amount of sugar called for. No jelly or jam recipe will work unless you use the exact amount specified.)
3 quarts blackberries, half fully ripe and half underripe
2 large tart apples, diced, leave skin and seeds in (Granny Smith apples are ideal)
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar for each cup of juice
TO EXTRACT JUICE FROM BERRIES: Sort and wash berries well, but gently. Place in a large pot along with the chopped apples and water. Bring slowly to a boil over medium heat, and boil about five minutes, stirring to cook evenly. Strain through jelly bag. When dripping has stopped, set this juice aside for a clear jelly, one suitable for gift-giving.
Now squeeze bag and collect as much juice as you can. This makes a cloudy but tasty jelly. (If looks aren't important, mix the juices and proceed to next step, making the jelly.)
(Note on straining through jelly bag: What this means is, put the cheesecloth in a colander, and put the cooked fruit pulp in it, and then draw the corners together to make a bag, and put a rubber band tightly around the corners to make a bag. You then suspend the bag above a large pot and let the juice drip through for hours, usually overnight. It is much more time-consuming than, say, running the juice through a fine strainer. It is, however, the only way. Once you accept that it is going to take overnight, it's really not difficult. Do not attempt to juice your berries in a juicer to avoid this process; it won't work, I tried it.)
You may stop at this point, refrigerate the juice, and cook the jelly another day. Or, if you have more berries, continue to cook them in batches as above, and refrigerate the juice until you're ready to make the jelly.
TO MAKE THE JELLY: In a 4-6 quart heavy pot with high sides, bring 3 cups juice rapidly to a boil and boil for three minutes. Be careful it doesn't boil over. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar; bring to a boil again, and boil steadily until two drops run together and "sheets" when poured off the side of a clear spoon, about 18-20 minutes. (I use a serving spoon for this process; it's easier to tell whether it is "sheeting.")
Pour into sterilized jars and seal. Yield: about 1 pint jelly from 3 cups juice. This makes a semisoft jelly that is moderately sweet.
NOTE: Do not double recipe. It is best to work in small batches.
Blueberry Crumb Pie
Homemade blueberry pie is so rare nowadays that you will probably become famous in your circle of friends if you even make it once! Blueberry pie is best when made with fresh blueberries, and if you pick your own you will have plenty.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
What you will need:
2 heaping pints of blueberries
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 sticks of butter
1 3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
Pie crust: Into your food processor or a large bowl, deposit one heaping cup of flour and one teaspoon of salt. Pulse once or, if using a bowl, stir it up with your fingers or anything handy. Then, slice in an entire stick of butter in fat slices. You can use either salted or unsalted, it doesn't matter. Food processor: Pulse until it gets to looking "fine," as though the butter is evenly incorporated, and then keep going until it starts to "clump together" a little bit. At the first signs of clumping, stop pulsing, or it will clot into wedges and be harder to work with. For the bowl method: Get out your pastry blender (this is the kitchen device that looks kind of like an egg slicer with a handle) and cut the butter cubes into the flour, and as with the processor, past the "fine" stage and into the clumping stage. I myself have a food processor, but if I am just making one pie, I usually just use the bowl method because cleanup is easier. (One time, when I didn't have a pastry blender, I used the ancient method of "cutting" the butter into the flour with two knives. This also works, it just takes a lot longer. If you have neither a food processor nor a pastry blender, you can just cut the butter in with two knives, using a motion reminiscent of one of the Three Stooges pretending to cut up a bowl of salad. Use sharp knives!)
Dump the clumpy little bits of butter-infused flour into a large bowl. Get out your set of measuring spoons, a small glass of water with two ice cubes in it, and a dinner fork. Cast three or four tablespoons of cold water onto the mixture while you toss the stuff around with the fork. (Don't accidentally throw the cubes in.) Usually the bowl method will take four tablespoons and the processor method will take three. Toss the bits all around to attempt to evenly coat them with dampness. Then, rub a little flour on your hands, and grasp the mixture and press it into a single ball. Throw and press it around the bowl until it is nice and smooth. It should easily press into a single smooth ball. Smooth.
Next, get out a large cutting board and a rolling pin, and coat them both with flour. (Put 1/4 cup on the cutting board.) Place the ball of pastry onto the cutting board, and press down with your palm to flatten it a bit. Turn it over, then roll out a circle with the rolling pin. If you can't get a nice, even circle, put your pie pan upside-down on top and cut out a circle about an inch larger than the pan. Then place the circle of pie crust in the pan and flute the edges. Stick it in the fridge.
Filling: In a large bowl, place two heaping pints of fresh blueberries. In another, smaller bowl, mix 1/3 cup of cornstarch and 1/2 cup of sugar. Pour sugar mixture over the berries and toss them about. Pour berries and all into the pie crust, and then sprinkle the juice of one lemon over them. If your lemon is not juicy, use two lemons.
Crumb Topping: In your food processor (or a bowl) mix 3/4 cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add one stick of butter that has been cut into slices. Pulse past the Bisquick-y looking stage, until large "crumbs" begin to form. (Stop way before it becomes a paste!) Or: blend with a pastry blender until large crumbs form. It is almost as fast to do in a bowl as with a processor.
Sprinkle/place the "crumbs" on top of the blueberries (it will be a giant mound), and set on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake 45-50 minutes. You will know it's done when you see blueberry juice bubbling around the edges. Do not stop cooking until you see the juice boiling; if it doesn't boil it will not set. All ovens are slightly different, and the thermostats are not always accurate; seeing the juice bubbling is a good way to know for sure. (If there is no juice visible, just take it out when the outer crust is nicely browned, by which I mean medium-brown, not light brown.)
Shortcake is just about the easiest dessert in the world. When you have scads of fresh berries in the fridge, there's no excuse not to make it! This is very rich, so either plan on a light meal beforehand, or make your shortcakes small. (This recipe can be cut in half if you just want to make two or three servings.)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees
You will need:
A pint or more of fresh berries (blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, huckleberries, mulberries; they are all good. Peaches are good too!)
Sugar (about 1/2 cup or so)
1 cup heavy whipping cream (1/2 pint)
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons butter
1/2-3/4 cup buttermilk, milk, or plain yogurt
Put the berries in a bowl and sprinkle 1/3 cup sugar over them and refrigerate. The sugar will draw some of the juice out of the berries and sweeten them.
In a clean, dry bowl, whip the cream with a whisk. This is such a small amount of cream that it is really easier to do it by hand than to use a mixer. When it starts to get thickish, add sugar. I would usually add about 2 tablespoons, but you might want to add more. Sweeten to taste. Continue whipping until it is nice and stiff, and then refrigerate.
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
Add the 6 tablespoons of butter (just slice them off a stick, the tablespoons are marked on the side). Blend with a pastry blender until it looks like Bisquick. Add buttermilk, milk, or plain yogurt. I find half a cup will usually do. You want the mixture to mix easily with a fork, and not be dry, yet remain somewhat stiff. Do not add so much liquid that it gets gloppy, and just stir to combine; do not overmix it. It should come together in just a few stirs.
Grease a cookie sheet or other flat pan with butter, and drop big spoonfuls of batter onto it to make the shortcakes. This recipe will make four, or six, or eight, depending on how big you make them. The batter should stand up on its own, rather stiffly, and should not spread out except for just a little.
Bake in the hot oven (that you remembered to preheat) until they are done; that will be anywhere between 10-20 minutes. When they are done they will be nicely browned (but not burnt!) and they will have grown a little and will not jiggle when you shake them. It is important that your oven be preheated for this recipe; if you forgot, let them sit on the counter until the oven has reached 450 degrees. Otherwise, they will burn on the top before the middles are done.
Remove shortcakes from the oven, and let them cool a tiny bit, just for a few minutes. Get out your dessert plates, and get the berries and whipped cream out of the fridge. Make sure everyone is ready to eat dessert, because these must be eaten immediately!
Put a shortcake on each plate, and slice them in half like a burger bun. Spoon berries onto the bottom halves, and some juice, until all is used. Then top the berries with the sweet whipped cream, and then put the top half of the still-warm shortcake on top. If there is whipped cream left, add an extra dollop on each cake and top with a fresh berry to make them look unbelievably beautiful. Serve immediately because the warm shortcake will melt the whipped cream; but the combination of the cold berries; cold, sweet whipped cream; and warm shortcake is what makes this dessert so wonderful.
Berries and Cream
I have saved the best for last. This is the easiest berry dessert by far, and I saved it for last so that if you got overwhelmed by the other recipes, you could go, "That one sounds more my style!"
For centuries – centuries – this was the accepted way to eat berries, and it has only fallen out of favor in the last few decades. The reason? People have become afraid of heavy cream because they think it is going to make them fat. A serving of berries and cream has no more calories than a fitness bar; it has just become unfashionable to enjoy such luxurious richness. If you went and picked your own berries, you deserve to have berries and cream at least once!
What you will need:
Put as many berries as you would like in a bowl. Pour cream over the berries until you feel like there is a nice amount; about a quarter cup usually does it. Sprinkle with sugar. It is heavenly.
For more on this see "Day Trips," May 23.
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org