I’m sorry to keep going on about blackberries, but if you live in the Pacific Northwest (or anyplace else where blackberries abound) you’ll be sympathetic. Of course if you live in a place where you have to buy blackberries at four bucks a pint, as I used to, perhaps you’ll be somewhat sympathetic (and maybe a little envious) as well. They’re just everywhere and they’re free. I spent the weekend making blackberry pie, blackberry compote, and the lovely delicately flavored pound cake in Suzanne Goin’s “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” that goes by the name Pastel Vasco, which is both laced with the blackberry compote, as well as served with it. And I have more grand plans in the works for my little pretties.
Picking blackberries is very soothing activity, in spite of the danger of the thorns. Your only focus is the next berry. Sunday morning I took five children blackberry picking (four of them mine, one the neighbors’—not as insane as it sounds, since the blackberry bushes are a hundred yards from the house next door to us). The children picked and ate and squabbled over who had found the biggest berry. I noticed the almost opalescent quality of the berries after a brief but heavy rain that morning.
Blackberries are very friendly bushes, almost too friendly; if you move in too close, they begin to embrace you, their little stickers gently but firmly hooking into your clothing. I also noticed the surprising lack of spider webs in the thicket (with relief, I might add; spiders weird me out). I saw only one web the whole time I was in there, and even though there was a cluster of big perfect berries right behind it, I left the web intact in deference to a spider who had been brave enough to make his home there.
When I got them home I made the blackberry pie. The recipe is from Mario Batali’s mom (published in the August Food + Wine), and is pretty basic. The crust for this is a straightforward combination of vegetable shortening, flour, sugar, and ice water. I’m out of practice with handling pie crust, but this one turned out well, despite a few tears. In fact, I think the best way to describe the visual outcome of this pie is “rustic.” I always find rustic to be a useful term that’s employed to describe things that are really just kind of ugly and ragged. But since this pie turned out just like that, we’ll go with rustic.
The filling is nothing more than blackberries, lemon juice, and sugar. I discovered that I had used all of my white sugar and forgotten to pick up any more at the grocery store on Saturday morning, so I substituted brown sugar for half the white and crossed my fingers.
The result, while ugly (for which read: rustic), was exactly what was promised to me. The crust was melty and tender and the berry filling bubbled up around the edges of the crust and made little pools of purple sticky on the top. Because I can’t stand the suspense in situations like this, I had done a test to make sure the crust would be good. I took the trimmings and baked them separately on another sheet until they were turning goldeny brown, then pulled them out and tasted them. They offered me a number of possibilities if I chose to skip the sugar, up the salt, and think savory.
The baking time was about an hour in my oven, and I found a crust shield to be a necessity in the last half hour of cooking. I do think the instruction I had to let the pie sit for four hours was a key to the success, because while it was still somewhat juicy and runny, the berries had set up to a certain degree, giving it some structure. It wasn’t just blackberry soup with crust croutons. I ate my piece straight, without ice cream so I could really get a feel for the flavor and sweetness of the filling, instead of being overwhelmed by the supplemental sugar. It had a nice balance, and while I’m informed that ice cream made it even better, it was pretty darned good without.
Marilyn Batali's Blackberry Pie
from Food + Wine Magazine, August 2008
1 9" pie (1-8 servings)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup solid vegetable shortening, chilled
5 tablespoons ice water
2 pints (1 1/2 pounds, or about 20-30 minutes worth of picking) blackberries
1/2 cup sugar (I used 1/4 cup white, and about 1/4 cup of light brown; it came out fine)
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, and salt. Add the shortening and use a pastry blender or two knives to cut it into the flour, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the ice water and stir with a fork until the dough is moistened. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Knead 2 or 3 times until the dough just comes together. Divide in half, flatten each into a disk, and refrigerate until well chilled, at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Let the dough stand at room temperature 10 minutes. Working on a lightly floured surface, roll out one disk of the dough to a 12" round. Transfer to a 9" pie plate Roll out remaining dough to an 11" round.
In a bowl, stir the blackberries with the sugar, flour, and lemon juice, lightly mashing the berries. Pour the berries into the prepared crust and sprinkle the butter cubes on top. Brush the overhanging pastry with water and carefully set the top crust over the berry filling. Press the edges of the dough together and trim the overhang to 1". Fold the edge under itself and crimp decoratively (or, in my case, messily). Cut 4 slits in the top crust.
Bake in the center of the oven (with a cookie sheet or piece of foil underneath it) for about an hour and 15 minutes, until the bottom crust is golden and the fruit is bubbling. If necessary, cover the edge with the foil for the last few minutes of baking. Let the pie cool at least four hours before serving.