Enjoy the treasures while they last, then make them last all year – without standing over a hot wood stove for hours!
There is a perfect moment in Vermont when the strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and raspberries are all singing together at the same time; only a moment it is, and only if we are lucky. These are the summer jewels, and if you are really blessed by the fruit gods, the first of the Pennsylvania peaches hit the farm stands as well, although usually the strawberries are long gone by then.
All you have to do is serve them up as is! Or, for a special dessert, lace with a little raspberry liquor and add a scoop of lemon sorbet. The perfect summer dessert.
When I was a kid, berries were not something we picked at a farm. We foraged them along the roadsides and sandbanks, a daily expedition that delighted our mother on all counts – first of all, we were out of her hair for a while, and secondly, we had the literal fruits of our labors to enhance the kitchen!
Throughout the summer
The wild spring strawberries we picked were super sweet, and super tiny, never enough to make jam, and these seldom made their way back home! They were the beginning of the season of gifts from the land around our home.
My mother and grandmother would take us to an old abandoned farmhouse a few back roads away and we would pick pails of luscious blueberries in summer! I’m not talking berry pails here, but big buckets! We were in heaven with blueberry pies, jam, muffins, and, our favorite pancakes! After picking, we children were often rewarded with “berries and cream” which was simply berries fresh from the picking in a cup of milk with a little sugar in it.
As summer started showing its age, the wonderful elderberries along our brook appeared, destined to be jelly or wine.
But of all the berries, blackberries were, and remain, my absolute favorite. Each morning, my brothers and I would go out and pick berries for mom at the sandbank across the road from our house, and at a second one just up the road. We left early to beat the birds, eat to our heart’s content and still have plenty to bring home.
Now, this is a tough job. I’m sure we spent weeks every summer covered with deep scratches from the brambles, and with purple fingers, but it was all well worth the effort. Mom made muffins, and vats of jam, pies, and our absolute favorite blackberry ice cream. Nothing was better, and the taste of blackberries still brings me back to my original home and those endless sweet summer days.
I pick my berries at farms now, and always bring along my grandkids. My granddaughter Jaina, feeling very grownup, set a rule for her younger cousin this year that she had to count 10 berries in the pail before she could pop one in her mouth. I don’t think this entirely worked, but it was a good effort. And when we return home, we have our own ritual of berries and cream on the front porch.
A berry is pretty much perfect. There is no better way to enjoy them than to pick them and pop them in your mouth. But, they are only here for a short time and that means we have to look at preservation if we want to extend the delight.
The wonderful women who came before me preserved their jam in big batches that lived on the shelf all year. This was hot work in July! There are easier ways around this, so whatever method you use, homemade jam can be part of your home’s routine. I also make jam the old-fashioned way every year, spoiled as I am with my air-conditioned kitchen, but not every batch, and only because I love the process and find it a pleasing link to my mother.
All berries freeze well, and easily, so this is the first method of preservation. It is ideal because frozen berries can be used in a hundred ways even after being frozen. Think of creating, in the middle of winter, raspberry smoothies, blackberry jam, blueberry pancakes, and any number of sauces, pies, muffins, etc.
The trick to freezing any berry so they do not clump up is to dry them really well and place them on a cookie sheet in the freezer, a single layer please. Freeze them for at least an hour, and then place in a zip-lock bag or other freezer container. They will remain separate little frozen jewels, and you can take them out and use as little or lot as you need.
While they are here, and fresh and delightful, make a few treats for now, and stow some away for later in the year. After you have eaten your fill, plan a little cook time one afternoon before tucking the rest away. It takes less than a half hour and just a few ingredients to make raspberry jam from scratch! Whip up a quick batch, use some for raspberry squares, and tuck the rest in the refrigerator.
A family favorite, and a favorite at potluck parties as well! You can use freshly made jam, recipe below, or jarred from the store. These are intensely buttery, but raspberries are the star. However, you can also swap out the raspberry jam for any favorite. These are great with cherry jam – substitute ½ tsp. almond extract for the vanilla. Peach is pretty luscious too. This is quick, easy, and once you gather the berries, you probably have everything else in your pantry. This makes nine to 18 squares depending on how hungry you are when you cut them.
1 cup unbleached white flour
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. salt
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup old-fashioned oats (not quick cooking)
½ cup butter, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup raspberry jam (recipe below)
Coarse sugar, optional
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and prepare an 8”X8” baking pan. Butter and line with parchment paper, overlapping two opposite sides by a few inches. Butter this as well. The parchment will help to remove the whole thing when done to make for easy cutting.
With a wire whip, mix together the flour, soda, cinnamon, salt, and sugar. Add the oats, butter, and vanilla, and mix this all together, with your hands, until the butter is evenly distributed.
Press two thirds of the mixture into the bottom of the pan, as evenly as you can. Spoon the jam in dollops over the top of this, and spread evenly as well. Crumble the remaining oat mixture on top, making little clumps, and pressing lightly. Sprinkle with a little coarse sugar, if you like.
Bake for 20 minutes and turn the pan. Check again after 15 minutes, but it will probably need five minutes more, it all depends on your oven. You want the top to brown, but don’t let it get too far!
Let cool to room temperature, this is the only hard part. Remove from the pan with your little handles, and cut into squares.
Gilding the lily: The kids like these with a sprinkle of chocolate chips tossed on at the halfway baking mark…