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Ready for picking: Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and currants

  • Berry Almond Coffee Cake GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Blueberry Lavender Panna Cotta, front, and Berry Almond Coffee Cake GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sour cream makes this Berry Almond Coffee Cake delicately tender. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Blueberry–Lavender Panna Cotta GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Forest fruit berries overhead assorted mix in studio on dark background with raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, red currant. Bojsha65—Getty Images/iStockphoto



For the Gazette
Thursday, July 19, 2018

Fanfares herald June’s strawberries because they are the first berries of the year, but the really splendiferous berry month is July. Raspberries and blueberries vie for top spot in the popularity stakes, but blackberries ripen too, and local growers now cultivate formerly hard-to-find berries such as black currants, red currants, and gooseberries.

Black currants look like blueberries, except they are darker and lack the blue bloom. Scarlet red currants are smaller, while gooseberries can be as big as grapes, and are usually green, though some varieties are purply-pink.

All three berries belong to the Ribes family, formerly rare in Massachusetts because they can harbor an organism dangerous to pine trees. Now you will find them in farmers markets. All are too tart to eat uncooked and unsweetened, but each has unique and delicious flavors that make them excellent in baked goods, as well as in sauces and preserves.

Blueberries are equally delicious but their mild flavor and gentle sweetness make them good to eat raw, and spectacular in baked goods. Like cranberries — which won’t arrive until October — they are natives of North America. Now they are widely cultivated, but this dates back only to 1920 when New Jersey agriculturalists realized that blueberries thrive on acid soils that grow little else of commercial value. Cultivated blueberries reach four times the size of wild ones and make perfect garnishes sitting perkily on top of frosting. Still, many swear the flavor of the small wild blueberries is better, and they can still be found, free for the picking, growing in scrubby places,

Blackberries, too, can be foraged from the wild, and this year’s crop is especially plentiful. They are cousins of raspberries — and also apples and pears and strawberries and the numerous other members of the rose family. Like raspberries, single blackberries conglomerate many druplets round a central core. Their difference is that when you pick a blackberry you get the core and all, but a raspberry leaves its core behind.

This habit makes raspberries the most fragile of berries, hence their packaging in small containers, where they do not have to suffer the indignity of having other berries piled on top. Hence, too, their expense. Like blackberries, raspberries also grow wild, often in their black form, which has distinctive perfumed flavors. Indeed, the flavor of all raspberries is so exquisite that they are worth their price.

Though berries are often interchangeable in recipes, especially for baked goods, all of them anchor beloved, even classic, recipes that show them to perfection. Blueberries star in muffins and pies, black currants in jam and drinks such as cassis, raspberries in classics such as Scottish cranachan and English summer pudding, and red currants in Austrian Linzertorte.

Hazelnuts are vital in the pastry for Linzertorte because they enhance the flavor of the berries. Almonds also go well with berries. Other partners include blackberries with apples, and peaches with raspberries as in Peach Melba.
In Britain gooseberries are ripe when elderflowers bloom, and the flowers bring out the best in the berry. Other berry-enhancing flowers include lavender with blueberries and blackberries, and rosewater with raspberries.

While berry season brings visions of cakes and muffins and pies, it can also bring thoughts of sauces for savory dishes. Cranberries with turkey is America’s iconic example, but in France and England tart gooseberries may be served with mackerel because they balance its oiliness. Red currants are the basis of Cumberland sauce for serving with venison, and both blueberries and blackberries are good with duck.

So, July brings lots of ways to use its berry harvests. Here are just a few.

BLUEBERRY-LAVENDER PANNA COTTA

⅓ cup dried (or ½ cup fresh) lavender florets plus lavender blooms for garnish if available

1 cup blueberries plus extra for garnish

⅓ cup sugar plus 2 teaspoons

¾ cup white wine

1 package plain gelatin

4 ounces mascarpone

½ cup heavy cream

Be sure to use either culinary lavender (available from supermarket bulk bins or spice sections) or fresh unsprayed lavender from a garden. If using fresh, strip the florets from the stems. Put the lavender in a saucepan with the blueberries, ⅓ cup sugar and ¼ cup water. Put over low heat and bring to simmering point. Stir, mashing the blueberries to break them up, and simmer for 3-4 minutes.

Strain through a fine sieve, pushing down on the berries and lavender in order to get as much liquid as possible. Set aside. (If you like you can leave it for up to 24 hours in the fridge.)

Put the wine in a small heatproof bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Stir to help them dissolve, then put the bowl in a pan with water to come half way up the sides and place it on a low heat, stirring until the liquid has thinned and looks clear. Remove from the heat

Mix the mascarpone and the cream, then mix in the gelatin and half the lavender-blueberry liquid. Stir well to blend, then divide among 4 ramekins or glasses. Let set (which takes about 2-3 hours).

Just before serving time, make a syrup by bringing the remaining lavender-blueberry liquid to a simmer and stirring in the remaining 2 teaspoons of sugar. Continue simmering until it has reduced by a quarter. Let it cool.

For serving, if you have used ramekins turn the panna cotta out of them and onto individual plates. Pour a little syrup around them and scatter on some of the remaining blueberries. Garnish with a lavender bloom if you have them.

If you have used glasses, simply top each panna cotta with syrup and blueberries.

BERRY AND ALMOND COFFEECAKE

Sour cream makes this coffeecake delicately tender. You can make it with mixed berries as in this recipe, or with just raspberries, blueberries or blackberries. Later in the year whole berry cranberry sauce is a good option, as are frozen berries

For the berry filling:

1½ pints mixed fresh berries such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants or 1¾ cups frozen mixed berries, defrosted

4 tablespoons sugar or to taste

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon cornstarch

For the cake:

1 stick (4 ounces) room temperature butter

1 cup sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

1½ teaspoons baking powder

2 eggs

2 teaspoons almond extract

1 cup sour cream

¾ cup sliced or slivered almonds

2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar

To make the filling wash the berries. Put them in a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons water. Cover and cook over low heat until the juice is running — about 3-4 minutes.

Mix the cornstarch with a tablespoon of water to make a thin paste. Stir in a little of the hot berry mixture then add it to the pan of berries along with the sugar and vanilla extract and cook with the lid off the pan for 3 more minutes or until the mixture has thickened. Cool to room temperature before using.

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the base of an 8-inch square cake pan with parchment paper. Grease the sides with a little of the butter.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until smooth and pale. In another bowl, mix the flour, baking soda and baking powder. Beat a couple of tablespoons of this mixture into the butter mixture along with an egg. Repeat this step with the other egg and another couple of tablespoons of flour.

Now add half the sour cream, the almond extract and about half the remaining flour mixture. Mix until blended, then add the rest of the sour cream and flour mixture. Blend well.

Spread half of this in the prepared pan. Spread the cooled berries on top. Now spread on the rest of the cake batter. (It may seem a bit sparse but it rises so don’t worry.)

Sprinkle the almonds evenly on top. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until light gold and a skewer poked into the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Sift the confectioners’ sugar on top for serving.

GOOSEBERRY FOOL

This simple dessert doesn’t look fancy, but it’s an English summer classic that virtually everyone likes. Serve with crisp cookies; those with a dark chocolate filling or frosting are especially good. A garnish of grated dark chocolate is another option.

2 cups washed gooseberries

½ cup sugar

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup heavy cream

Top and tail the gooseberries by snipping off the dried blossom and stalk ends. Put them in a pan with 2 tablespoons of water and the sugar, cover with a lid and cook over low heat until the berries have collapsed and the skins are tender — about 15 minutes. Mix the egg yolk with the vanilla in a small bowl and pour in about half a cup of hot liquid from the gooseberries. Stir and return this to the pan over the low heat. Continue stirring for a minute or two until the juice looks thickened.

Remove from the heat and chill until thick. Whip the heavy cream and fold it into the gooseberries so you have a mixture that is as thick as yogurt. Pour into individual dishes such as sorbet glasses and serve with cookies or sprinkled with grated dark chocolate.

CRANACHAN

Adding toasted oatmeal to berries and cream may sound a little odd, but many northern countries have such mixtures. Swiss muesli with oats, apples and berries is the best known. Marjapuro is a Finnish version with lingonberries — a cranberry cousin. Cranachan comes from Scotland, which is famous for its raspberries. It’s also famous for oats and whisky, which all appear in this dessert.

2 tablespoons oatmeal, either medium or rolled oats (not the 1-minute sort)

1 pint raspberries, plus more for garnish

1 tablespoon sugar

1½ cups heavy cream

1 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons Scotch whisky

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Scatter the oatmeal onto a pie plate and bake in the oven for 3-5 minutes or until it smells toasted and has turned a shade darker. (It can burn quickly so watch and smell carefully). Set aside to cook.

Crush half the raspberries and sieve them to remove the seeds. Mix in the sugar to form a purée.

Whip the cream until very thick. Stir in the toasted oats and then the honey and whisky. Taste and add more of either if you would like. Fold in half the remaining raspberries.

Serve in 4 wine glasses or something similar. Put in a layer of the cream mixture, then a layer of berries and top with another cream mixture layer and just a berry or two. Serve at room temperature rather than chilled because this allows the flavors to shine.

DUCK LEGS WITH SAUTEED SWEET POTATOES AND APPLES AND BLACKBERRY SAUCE

Apples, oranges, cherries and berries are all traditional companions to duck because their tartness offsets its richness and the fruit flavors highlight the tasty meat. Here apples pair with sweet potatoes and a blackberry sauce spiked with orange zest in a delicious and festive dish. Blueberries could be used instead of blackberries.

For the duck legs:

2 large duck legs (about 10 ounces each)

1 teaspoon olive oil or more as needed

2 tablespoons chopped onion

1 large sweet potato (10-12 ounces), peeled and cut in half- inch slices

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon thyme

1 apples peeled, cored and cut into 8-10 slices

For the Blackberry Sauce:

¼ cup duck or chicken stock or water

1 cup blackberries

1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest

¼ cup port or other full-flavored red wine (optional)

Turn the oven to 375 degrees. Wash the duck legs, and pat dry. Prick the skin side several times with a skewer. Use the olive oil to grease a sauté pan or other large vessel that can go on the stove and in the oven. Set over moderate-high heat and put in the duck legs skin side down.

Cook until the fat runs then increase the heat and cook for 12-15 minutes or until the skin is deep golden brown. Turn and cook the other side for 5 minutes.

Remove the legs and pour most of the fat out of the pan into a bowl. Return the legs to the pan, cover with the lid or foil and put into the oven.

Put a tablespoon or so of the duck fat into a frying pan over moderate heat and cook the chopped onion in it for 3-4 minutes. Meanwhile, cut each sweet potato slice into 4 wedge-shaped quarters. Add these to the frying pan when the onion has softened. Toss for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle with the thyme and salt to taste then set aside until the duck legs have been in the oven for 20 minutes.

At this point add the sweet potato mixture to the duck legs and continue cooking for 25 minutes.

Return the frying pan to moderate heat. Add a teaspoon or so of the duck fat and sauté the apple slices until golden — about 3-4 minutes. Set aside.

While the duck is cooking, make the sauce. Put the stock or water and the berries in a small pan. Simmer until the berries are softening. Stir in the orange zest and a pinch of salt, then simmer for 4-5 minutes or until the berries are completely soft.

Pass them through a sieve, pressing to get all the juice and flesh. Return the strained sauce to the heat and add the wine or port or apple juice. Bring to a boil. Stir the cornstarch to a thin paste with a tablespoon or so of cold water. Stir in a little of the boiling juice, then return this to pan and stir until the sauce thickens.

To serve, place the duck legs on the plates and pour the sauce over or around them. Add the apple slices to the sweet potato mixture and serve on the side.