Lifestyle

Fresh berries provide summer taste for desserts

Chocolate brownie cupcakes make a great focal point on a dessert tray, made with a fresh strawberry and mascarpone frosting. - Chad Coleman/Staff Photo
Chocolate brownie cupcakes make a great focal point on a dessert tray, made with a fresh strawberry and mascarpone frosting.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Staff Photo

One of the joys of summer eating is the abundance of colorful summer fruit now available. Berries have always been a top favorite, especially this time of year when they’re locally grown and fresh as they can be. This is when I find myself using berries more than ever, beginning with breakfast to taking full advantage of how they make desserts pop with their exquisite flavor.

Very shortly, local blackberries will be ripe for picking, which I do myself at Luther Burbank Park. Blackberry bushes grow high and wide throughout the park grounds, as they do all over the Island. Fresh blackberries taste delicious just on their own and shine big time when baked in a pie.

Please don’t let the pastry dough intimidation issue stop you. If you don’t want to even go there, you can just as easily purchase prepared pie dough stored in the freezer section of the grocery store. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have really good ones. The main goal here is to bake a blackberry pie: pure and simple, with ‘simple’ meaning whatever works best for you. Your friends and family will be so thrilled to have homemade blackberry pie that they won’t even care how you got the crust. Fresh local berries only come around once a year, so just go for it. You will be deeply appreciated for being the lovebug who was sweet enough to bake pie.

I’ve discovered for myself that the whole pie baking process is made more pleasurable if I prepare the pastry dough a day ahead of time, even the night before. That way, not only is it done and ready to work with, but it has ample time to properly chill, one of the most essential steps to a successful crust.

Pie Dough

Yields a double crust for a 9-inch pie

Ingredients:

2½ cups all-purpose flour

2 sticks unsalted, very cold butter (cut into ½-inch slices, then quartered)

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

½ teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons ice water

Directions:

Pulse flour, salt and sugar in a food processor for several seconds to combine. Add the butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some larger pieces remaining, about 5 to 10 seconds. Slowly pour the ice water evenly over the flour mixture and pulse just until it begins to hold together, about 10 seconds. The dough should not be sticky or wet, but rather look somewhat dry and shaggy; don’t worry or think that appearance means you need to add more water. Press the dough together and gather into two balls, then flatten to form a disc shape, making one a little bit larger than the other. Cover each one in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.

Fresh Blackberry Pie

Yields 6 to 8

Ingredients:

Pastry dough for a double crusted 9-inch pie (made from scratch or store-bought)

6 cups fresh blackberries (do not rinse beforehand)

1 cup sugar

1 egg white (for the bottom crust glaze)

2 teaspoons sugar (for the bottom crust glaze)

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice (fresh squeezed)

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup corn starch

2 tablespoons butter

1 egg yolk (for the top crust glaze)

1 tablespoon milk or cream (for the top glaze)

1 to 2 teaspoons sugar for sprinkling on top crust

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees with the rack placed in the lower third. Sort through the berries and discard any that are molded or not completely ripe. It’s best not to rinse the blackberries because doing so will cause them to absorb the water and become too soggy. Place the berries, 1 cup sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, lemon zest, lemon juice, vanilla extract and corn starch in a medium bowl and gently fold all together.

Remove the pastry dough from the refrigerator and allow it to rest for about 5 to 10 minutes until it’s easier to work with, but still cold. If you try to roll it out when it’s too chilled, it will fall apart. Place the larger disc between two sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper and roll out large enough to create a little overhang off the edge of a 9-inch pie pan: approximately 14 to 15 inches in diameter and about 1/8 inch thick. Transfer to the pie dish and place in evenly. If the dough feels too sticky to release, place it in the freezer for about 5 minutes.

Separate the egg white to be used for the bottom crust glaze and save its yolk to glaze the top crust. Whisk the egg white with the 2 teaspoons of sugar and brush this mixture over the bottom pie dough, including up the sides. This step will help prevent the crust from getting soggy during baking.

Spoon the blackberry mixture into the pie plate. Cut the 2 tablespoons of butter into little pieces and dot the top of the berries. Roll out the second disc of pastry dough to a thickness of 1/8 inch and center it on top of the pie. Crimp the outside edges together and use a fork to press them down just enough to make a design. Trim any excess dough. Now place the pie in the freezer for 30 minutes to get the dough well chilled. Afterwards, use a knife to make four or five 2-inch decorative slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape. You can also use a mini cookie cutter to make shapes in the dough, which will be much easier to do after it comes out of the freezer. Another option is to cut out a shape just in the middle of the pie and add a few slits.

Beat the remaining egg yolk with the tablespoon of milk or cream and brush a thin layer over the top crust, including edges, then sprinkle with 1 to 2 teaspoons sugar.

Place the pie plate on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper to catch any liquid that escapes during baking. Bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees, then decrease the temperature to 400 degrees and bake for an additional 45 to 50 minutes. If the crust appears to be getting too dark during baking, tent the whole pie with heavy duty aluminum foil.

When it’s done, place on a rack and allow the pie to cool for at least an hour so that the berries and juices can settle together before you cut into it. That important waiting step will most likely be the hardest part of the entire process. Serve with a side of vanilla bean ice cream.

Blueberries are one of my most favorite summer fruits and are loaded with health-supportive antioxidants. I enjoy them the most for breakfast on top of oatmeal, mixed in yogurt, or dropped into pancakes right after I pour the batter on the griddle. And don’t even get me started on blueberry muffins.

Another way that I love eating fresh blueberries, besides on their fabulous own, is in a very easy-to-make French dessert called Clafouti. This delicious treat starts out like a crepe batter, then bakes up to taste like a custard only with a firmer texture. I found this wonderful blueberry Clafouti recipe from pastry guru Cindy Mushet. The only changes that I made were increasing the vanilla extract and deleting the optional 2 tablespoons of almond or lemon liqueur that she suggests sprinkling on top when it’s done baking.

Clafouti can be whipped up in less than 5 minutes before popping it in the oven. All that is required for preparation is whisking all the ingredients together in one bowl. You even have the option of mixing the batter in a blender, if you prefer. Baking from scratch doesn’t get any easier than this.

Blueberry Clafouti

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients:

1 half pint of fresh blueberries (or one generous 8-ounce cup)

4 large eggs

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

Lemon zest, grated finely from one whole lemon

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

5 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

¾ cup whole milk

¼ cup sour cream or crème fraiche (French sour cream found in most grocery stores)

1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar (optional)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with the rack placed in the middle. Lightly butter a 9-inch baking dish.

Rinse the berries and gently pat dry. Discard any that aren’t ripe or in great shape. Pour them evenly into the bottom of the buttered baking dish. Place the eggs and granulated sugar in a medium bowl and whisk vigorously to thoroughly blend. Add the lemon zest and vanilla extract and whisk again. Add the flour and salt and whisk until the flour lumps have been blended into the egg mixture. Add the milk and sour cream and whisk until all the ingredients are mixed well. At this point, you can even cover the batter with plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator for a day until you’re ready to use it.

Pour the batter over the blueberries and move the berries around so that they are evenly distributed. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the clafouti is set and firm in the center. The top should be slightly browned and the edges should appear crispy. Let cool for about 5 to 10 minutes before serving. If you like, you can sift some confectioners’ sugar over the top prior to serving. Clafouti is best served warm from the oven, but can be refrigerated, then reheated, and still taste yummy.

For those who crave something chocolate for dessert, as most of us do, brownie cupcakes are a perfect marriage between two beloved faves: brownies and chocolate cake. Besides their rich, satisfying taste, they are as easy to make as brownies, instead of being more labor intensive like cake. They use unsweetened cocoa powder, which eliminates the need to melt chocolate, saving time and the need to wash extra stuff.

These cupcakes are so delish on their own, but to enhance them even more, I top them off with fresh strawberry and mascarpone cheese frosting, which is even easier to prepare than the cupcakes. Mascarpone is a sweet, creamy Italian cheese, lighter than cream cheese and without the tangy taste. Eating mascarpone cheese with fresh strawberries is both sinfully and heavenly delicious at the same time, especially when there’s a brownie cupcake in every bite.

Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes with Strawberry Mascarpone Cheese Frosting

Yields 13 to 14 cupcakes

Ingredients for cupcakes:

¾ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup brown sugar (packed down)

¾ cup unsalted butter (melted and cooled slightly)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with the oven rack placed in the middle. Line a muffin pan with paper liners.

This batter produces enough for 13 or 14 cupcakes. If you use all the batter for just 12, they will spill over during baking and be very difficult to remove, so have patience and bake an extra one or two. You can also bake what’s leftover in a toaster oven (at 300 degrees) by placing a cupcake liner in a ramekin.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, whisk together the granulated and brown sugars with the melted butter until smooth. Whisk in the vanilla extract and add the eggs one at a time, making sure to beat well after each one. Add the flour mixture and beat until combined.

Scoop the batter into each liner, just under ¾ full. Remember: you will have leftover batter beyond 12. Bake for 28 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center of each cupcake comes out with only a few crumbs attached. When touched, their tops will not spring back. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove cupcakes from pan and let cool completely prior to frosting.

Strawberry and Mascarpone Frosting

Yields enough to frost 14 cupcakes and then some

Ingredients:

1 cup fresh strawberries (washed, dried and cut up), plus several more left whole

1 cup mascarpone cheese

½ cup confectioners’ sugar (sifted)

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

Beat the mascarpone cheese until it’s light and fluffy, about a minute or so. Beat in the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla extract and strawberries. Chill at least one hour to firm up before frosting. Slice the remaining whole strawberries and stick a slice into the top of each frosted cupcake. Refrigerate until serving. These cupcakes are best eaten the same day, which is a great excuse to finish them off.

Enjoy, and fruitful berry picking!

Cynthia Shifrin can be reached at cyns0117@aol.com or 232-3722.

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