Asynchronous communication and instant gratification makes nature’s ridged timing feel foreign. Strawberries gleam on the grocery store shelves at all times of the year. So, when black raspberries come in season the scramble to pick them in those precious few days is jarring. Maybe it’s that I grew up picking fruits and tending my grandmother’s garden, that I find this limitation reassuring. No matter what technology throws at us, black raspberries are only in season for moments.
Dale Stokes Berry Farm was just as lovely as I remembered it. The raspberry bushes were just as cruel as I remembered them. They give up their fruit but only after their thorns draw blood.
Two of us picked 13 pounds of berries in 2 hours. This was sufficient to make 2 batches of jelly, 3 quarts of pie filling, one pie with about 4 cups of berries left over to freeze.
One batch of jelly was made according to the instructions on the Sure-jell packaging. I went off the map with the second batch. Last year we tried out a sugar-free black raspberry chipotle lime jam. I wanted to repeat this, but I found that the link to the recipe is now broken (see last year’s blog here).
I purchased some sugar-free Sure-jell pectin. And while I followed the instructions in terms of how much prepared juice I used and cooking instructions, I made everything else up as I went. I used the juice and zest from about 2-3 limes, 6 dashes of cheyenne pepper, and one cup of orange blossom honey. Bear in mind that I was mostly tossing things in and adjusting by taste.
My concerns about the jelly setting up enough were valid. That quantity of honey is significantly less than what the Sure-jell package recommends. Like the dependencies between Elvis and The Colonel, pectin working with sugar is not to be underestimated in terms of jams and jellies setting. While the jelly is a bit runny, it won’t make your PBJ a total mess. Imma call this good enough. The coolest thing about drawing down the sugar in the recipe is the herbal notes in this jam shine through.
I prepped the pie filling in the same way discussed in last year’s blog. Only, I was completely prepared for the Clear-jel to behave very poorly. It didn’t disappoint. I settled on a process of moving the pot on and off the burner while violently stirring. This was after my efforts to find the right burner temperature were thwarted numerous times.
Later in the day we enjoyed the pie, while watching the World Cup at an English Pub. Somehow this seemed appropriate. It was wonderful. But I wouldn’t have expected to turn out any other way. Because black raspberries.
Last year we got yellow delicious apples and made our apple sauce from just that varietal. Once we finished all our apple sauce last year, I met a gentleman at Findlay Market who started grafting apples as a hobby. He had about eight varieties of apples, and after some discussion with him, I thought our apple sauce could have a little more depth if we used several different types of apples.
I found this gentleman at Findlay this year, and arranged to get a mixed bushel of apples from him. I should have written down all the varietals that we had in that bushel, but I failed. I know yellow delicious was one of the varietals we had. I hadn’t heard of most of the others. I think cort and mollies were a couple of the others.
Apples. I think there was at least eight varieties in this box.
Apples, before they were cored.
This is what a bushel of apples looks like.
I do know that when we tasted the apples, I was shocked by how different they were. They varied from texture to flavor. Some were tart. Some were crisp. Some were sweet.
Making the sauce didn’t bring many surprises. We did learn the hard way that packing the pot too full resulted in burning some of the apples at the bottom of the pot. The smoky flavor that this imparted to the sauce was too intense to salvage as a sweet apple sauce. We canned the unsweeted smoky apple sauce, thinking that this would be delicious in savory dishes. I should think that sauce would make a terrific garnish for seared pork chops or roasted pork loin. It would also work in a savory crepe with a robust cheese like gorgonzola.
We didn’t make the same mistake with the remaining batches. I have noticed that when we can with vanilla, the flavor really deeps with age. So when we compared the new sauce to the batch that we canned last year, the vanilla flavor wasn’t as prominent. I expect that this will change as the sauce ages in the jars. The sauce tastes great as it is, but I would like to revisit the results in a few months when the vanilla matures.
Cooking the apples down for sauce. We used a food mill to take out all the skins. Keeping the skins on made the sauce thicken due to the pectin in the skin.
We fueled ourselves with a couple of hand pies from O Pie O. They were delicious. If you don’t want to master making pie crust, just grab a pie from these guys. That’s the best bought pie I have ever had.
Look at how cute it is! That was the strawberry raspberry balsamic pie.
This is the apple hand pie in cross section.
We also snagged a half bushel of tomatoes and made tomato paste. I don’t know what I was expecting. The tomatoes cooked down into 8 little jam jars; I think those jars only hold about a half a cup. Words won’t do justice to how flavor-packed this homemade paste was. We only seasoned the paste with salt and bay leaves. The resulting paste was rich and velvety. It captured all the bright acidity of the tomatoes along with the caramelized sweetness that all that cooking and evaporation causes.
I haven’t used the paste in cooking yet, but it tastes too good to dilute in a marinara sauce. I haven’t decided what I will do with these little jars of gold. I’m sure I will blog about whatever I end up doing with them.
If you are considering trying this at home, be prepared for it to take all day. Between the stovetop cooking, the oven roasting, and the canning, this was a very time-consuming project. but now that I understand how much better this homemade paste is to commercially canned paste, I will be happy to devote the time required. It’s shocking how rich that paste is. Those little jars were well worth the hours and hours of effort.
This was the plan. We would pick pick 10 quarts of blueberries. Then we would make two jams, 7 quarts of blueberry pie filling, one blueberry pie, and one apple-blueberry short cake. We had no idea that this was an overly ambitious plan. Here’s how it went down.
Do you know how long it takes two people to pick ten quarts of blueberries? We didn’t. I had some concept of the effort involved based on my past strawberry and raspberry picking experiences. We tend to forget negative bits of the past and retain the positive bits. This is how women agree to go through childbirth a second time. I figured it would take us a couple of hours. What I failed to figure was how fatiguing bending over and/or kneeling for 2 hours can be.
We picked at Hidden Valley Farm in Lebanon, OH. They opened at ten, which meant a pretty late start to our day. When we can, we tend to start cooking a little earlier than that. Plus, I know from my farm-raised father, that you really want to get your picking in before the heat of the day, which means being in the field at sunrise. Sweating your balls off really drains your energy, obviously not my father’s words.
After an hour in the car charting every back road in Southwestern Ohio and questioning the wisdom of Google Maps, we turned up at the farm at ten. When I told the old farmer that we were there to pick blueberries, he responded with, “Good. They aren’t going to pick themselves.” My dad’s family is thick with these types of characters. I don’t know if farming cultivates character, or if characters are drawn to farming.
A friendly woman approached and asked if we had picked blueberries before. I said no, but to satisfy my own anxiety at being perceived as a noob, I added that I’ve picked other fruits. She directed us to one of two areas with blueberry shrubs, and explained that we should look for berries that separate from the bush at a gentle twist. It’s still unclear if this woman was a helpful patron or an employee of the farm.
The twenty ounces of iced coffee that I expected to fuel my picking also set my back teeth afloat, so I inquired about a bathroom. I was cheerfully lead to an outhouse. Joy. I believe that this was my first outhouse experience. It could have been worse, but lets just say the lack of light in there was probably for the best. It did smell of a shit you might find in your closet days after the stench has alerted you to your cat’s passive aggressive punishment for vacationing.
I am listening to Andrew W. K. while writing these captions. This combo isn’t working. Pastoral pictures and frat rock, not a good combo. Anyway, this is what a blueberry bush looks like.
The shrubs appeared to be of varying maturity. It looked like they were correct in stating that they were at the beginning of their season. The shrubs had quite a few berries on them that were not yet ripe. Regardless, we did find plenty to pick.
Like strawberries, efficient blueberry picking is based on your eye catching color peeking out between leaves.
I’ve never seen a blueberry shrub before. They are squat little bushes.
They had two fields of bushes. That sentence made my inner twelve-year-old snicker.
Their second field was further from the entrance. We both reasoned that people probably didn’t venture back there as frequently, so the picking would be better. We decided to move to the second field. Logic and reason didn’t disappoint.
Their high-tech bird repellent.
We were wondering how they kept the birds off their berries. Birds find a way to get my cherry tomatoes off of my deck in the middle of downtown. This seemed a far easier meal. We were also wondering why we kept hearing something that sounded a little like gun fire. I had actually assumed someone was getting in target practice within earshot. Turns out those ideas aren’t as unrelated as you might think.
As we approached the second field, there was muffled screaming, “Fire in the hole”! Now, reasonable people would have reconsidered approaching, but we aren’t reasonable. We found an air gun set-up at the edge of the field. It was rigged to a container of propane, and was set-up to go off at intervals. In the spirit of Scooby Doo, bird-eating-berries mystery solved.
Their low-tech bird repellent.
This is what almost eight quarts of blueberries looks like.
With the picking adventure in the bag, we started cooking around one in the afternoon. We started on two varieties of blueberry jam. We made one batch of standard jam, and we made one batch of this spiced blueberry jam. Aside from the fact that we needed to gather some last minute ingredients (thanks Jenn and Carly), making the jams went as planned.
Spiced blueberry jam prior to simmering.
Spiced blueberry jam.
Panna Cotta topped with fresh blueberry jam.
My canning partner Ali, who is almost always the we that I am referring to when cooking, brought over panna cotta. Naturally, we put fresh preserves on it. The standard blueberry jam passed this test with flying colors. The panna cotta was delicious, and really would have been wonderful pared with any fruit topping.
Jams just before sealing.
The spiced jam is interesting. The star anise gives the impression of excessive sweetness, but the cider vinegar counterbalances it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it when tasting it on its own. I later spooned a bit of it on the panna cotta and enjoyed it. My partner said that she couldn’t tell the difference between the regular and spiced jams, so it’s safe to say the difference is subtle.
Blanched berries. These got combined with the Clear Jel and sugar mixture, that would also double as cement in a pinch.
This was our first time canning pie filling. It did not exactly go off without a hitch. According to my not-so-exhausted research, Clear Jel is the only product approved for home canning. This product was a real pain to get hold of. Here’s the recipe we used. I’m not going to delve into the challenge that was Clear Jel. I am just going to say the things that I learned. First, when the instructions say don’t overcook, what they mean is don’t heat it up too fast. If you should, perhaps, misinterpret this direction and heat it up too fast, just know that the terrifying inconsistent gelatinous goo that results can me beat out with a wisk if you remove the pot from heat. Second, the sugar Clear Jel combo will form something like cement if you fail to clean your pot almost immediately after use. Third, the instructions are poorly worded. If you choose to work with this product, I can only say, my the odds be ever in your favor.
Pie filling. Let’s not think about how many dollars of blueberries are in that jar.
By the time we finished the jams and navigated the Clear Jel fiasco, we were beat. At six we slumped down at the table, and dolefully looked at each other. The glance that we shared said it all. What were we thinking?
After a few moments of commiserating that our work was not yet done, we started on the pie and the shortcake. I had made the pie crust some days earlier, and it was just a matter of rolling it out and assembling the pie with the filling that we had finished.
I followed this vegan pie crust recipe, and used my own homemade vegan butter. I know what you are thinking, meat eater. You are thinking that this must taste like crap. I am also a meat eater, and frankly I thought the same. The vegan butter was quite good. It was better than any margarine that I’ve had by a long shot. In a blind taste test, I bet I would struggle to identify butter from this vegan butter.
The pie rolled out wonderfully. I was suspicious, as in my experience, the flakiness of a pie crust has an inverse relationship with the ease with which it rolls out. Pie crusts that roll well, are pie crusts that have too much water. But the crust turned out really great. It was the right balance of flaky, crisp, and sturdy. This crust was good enough that I am making it my default recipe.
Pie right out of the oven.
That’s a fine-looking slice of pie.
That brings us to the shortcake. Did you look at the recipe? Stupid metric system. Or perhaps, stupid America for not adopting the metric system like the rest of the world. In addition, this thing looked like a ghastly mess when we put it in the oven. The dough was difficult to work with. We were shocked to find that it came out of the oven looking exactly like the pictures. I’m convinced that elves replaced that hot mess we put in the oven with a fully prepared shortcake.
The shortcake turned out pretty well. It was a bit more tart that I would have liked, but the cake part was pleasant. Personally, I would add a bit of vanilla to the cake, as it had more of a pound cake texture than biscuit texture. In America, pound cake means lightly sweetened biscuit; I don’t know how you Brits do it.
What are my lessons in summary? Vegan pie crust is great. Clear Jel is a filthy whore. Brits don’t know what short cake is. Blueberry jam is delicious. The end.