13 July 2010

A day for berry-picking and purple-stained hands

With all the talk about heat waves these days, I'm starting to long for the summer we expect in Los Angeles. We had a warm Saturday in downtown, where the haze burned off early and the temperature got up into the low eighties, but by the time we got home the fog was marching inexorably back over the hill and blocking out the sun. My lettuce is still flourishing, mushrooms are daring to grow in my damp herb pots, and I'm wearing socks in the house all day.

I'm not usually one to complain about gloomy, foggy, or downright wet weather. While my neighbors and coworkers are glaring up at the steely grey skies, I am thrown back to my childhood, where 68˚F and cloudy would be nothing to complain about; not when 55˚F and raining was a likely alternative. Yesterday was a day for berry picking.


Every summer, usually after we returned from vacation, the thickets of blueberries that surrounded our house would be heavy with sweet, plump, purple-blue-black fruit. Our property also played host to the occasional huckleberry and an inpenetrable thicket of salmonberries, with which my father would occasionally go to battle, hoping to free our driveway from its clutches.

On sunny or otherwise not-raining mornings, my sister and I would venture outside with buckets, mosquito repellent, and our retriever-wolf-husky mix dog, Fosdick - the most reliable bear detector we had. We would clamber over mossy tree trunks and rain-slicked rocks, one purple-stained hand plucking berries and the other alternately slapping at insects and throwing a muddy tennis ball for the dog. As I recall, my sister would admit defeat before I would, leaving me to strip as many berries as I could before my bucket was filled. A fair few would pass my lips before I got inside, sweet and juicy, even though a long soak would later reveal that some of the berries played host to miniscule caterpillars.

I don't think we ever made blueberry pie when I was a child; the berries were most often put into service as syrup for pancakes and waffles, still one of my favourite ways to prepare them. However, several years ago I discovered a recipe for blueberry-almond pie in a summer issue of Bon Appétit, and I was hooked. (As an aside, the
triple-cherry pie from the same issue is also out of this world.)

blueberry-almond crumble pie

The key to this pie is the top crust - a crumble that contains four full ounces of almond paste. By itself, it is delicious, lighter than marzipan but with all the almond flavor; with a bite of the blueberry filling, it is sublime and delicate. The quality of your almond paste is paramount here; I love the Premium Almond Paste from
Mandelin (and hey, it comes in 10.5 pound pails - stop me now!)

As another bonus, this pie, unlike so many other berry pies, works with frozen berries, so when you hit that point of winter when you are sick of spiced apples and poached pears, you can dig some frozen blueberries out of the freezer and have a splash of something new.

blueberry-almond crumble pie
Blueberry-Almond Crumble Pie
adapted from
Jeanne Thiel Kelley's recipe

1 disk of your favorite pie crust dough (I'll get mine on here eventually;
Pim's new method looks easy and delicious)

3/4 C sugar, plus more if needed
1/4 C cornstarch
1/4 t cinnamon
2 lbs fresh blueberries, picked over
1 1/2 T lemon juice

scant 2/3 C unbleached flour
4 oz premium almond paste, roughly crumbled
1/4 C chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
scant 1/2 t salt

Roll out crust and transfer to a 9 inch pie dish. Trim crust 1/2" from edge of dish, turn under and crimp. Return crust to refrigerator.

Whisk sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon in 3 or 4 quart heavy pot until combined. Stir in blueberries and lemon juice. Stirring to prevent scorching, cook on medium until the mixture simmers thickly and the blueberries are tender, 10-20 minutes. Cool to room temperature, about one hour.

For the topping, combine flour, almond paste, butter, and salt in a food processor or sturdy blender and pulse until clumped together. Chill 30 minutes.

Place rack in lower part of oven and preheat to 400˚F. Pour filling into chilled crust and crumble topping over the top. Bake on a sheet of aluminum foil or baking sheet until topping is golden and filling is bubbling thickly (and often, over the edge), 45-55 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool.

Serve warm or room temperature with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or au naturel. I think it would be fantastic with cinnamon ice cream, but I've never actually tried it.

Serves 6-8, depending on how much you ate for dinner.

Note: are you one of those crazy people who throws away pie crust scraps? My love of pie was born of pie crust cookies in my grandma's house: cut the trimmed crust edges into manageable pieces and arrange on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar and place into the freezer or refrigerator until ready to bake pie. Place the baking sheet under your pie and bake until golden brown and crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove to cooling rack (you can return the sheet to the oven to catch drips if needed), then eat warm or at room temperature.

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