North Carolina really inspired my love of the seasons. First, because it actually gave me seasons. Prior to moving here, I lived in Florida where the seasons could be classified as mild, hot, nuclear and tolerable. I had begun to visit farmer's markets back then, but it was more about the novelty of it and less about my food philosophy. The sheer abundance of markets in North Carolina, its accessibility to local farms and my own ability to grow vegetables taught me a few things about food. I didn't know what a tomato plucked off the vine tasted like until I grew my own. I never had a farm fresh egg nor had I ever picked berries.
The first time I met a blackberry patch, the Mister and I were living a little outside the city and a friend tipped me off to a thicket at a nearby park. Free berries for the taking?! Illegal activity was something I had given up ages ago, so this was my kind of excitement. It felt slightly sneaky and covert, a feeling I admittedly miss from time to time.
So, there we were, like two ants under the magnifying glass of the mid-afternoon sun. I was in a dress and gladiator sandals, obviously clueless about where blackberries live. The Mister, well, he was a sweaty good sport. It took the two of us to navigate the thorns and brambles. My dress, made of some ungodly, stretchy blend of fabric, continually got caught on the branches. I would have to freeze mid-pick and have the Mister unhinge me.
Picking berries is its own kind of addiction. You scavenge, reach and pick, searching and clamoring for just one more. Before the berry hits the bottom of the bucket, your sights have moved on to the next. And, it seems, the ripest, fattest gems are always a fingertip away. Black purple bulbs dangling just a hair out of reach. So you reach and stretch, elongating yourself for the cause, emerging victorious with tiny scratches and pricks running the length of your arms and legs (that is, if you're wearing a dress).
We learned about snakes and spiders after our first pick proving once again that ignorance is bliss. When I find patches now, I am always a tad bit jumpy, expecting a poisonous fang to sink into my leg at any moment because monster vampire snakes are lurking just beneath the surface. So says my brain.
At the market, blackberries are sold by the gallon, half gallon and pint. I opt for the half-gallon, positive that I will make the most elaborate creations with my swollen treasures and then, without fail, proceed to eat them all. By the time I'm ready to do something, I can see the bottom of the cardboard container smeared with juice and scattered with the last lone berries, silently mocking me.
Then, I go buy more and make things like clafoutis. Actually, this was my first time making clafoutis. It's a country dessert, classically French (pronounced 'kla-foo-tee'). It's custard-like and comforting and it's perfect for individual servings which somehow manage to feel more special. Or, socially acceptable.
I can house a whole cake, no problem. But if it's my own mini-cake, I can do it without all the points and stares. See how that works?
Blackberry Clafoutis with Vanilla Bean & Lime For four large 9-oz ramekins (you could use a large baking dish or six to eight smaller ramekins)
Traditionally, clafoutis is made with cherries and liqueur. The season beckons me to use blackberries paired with lime, which is my latest pairing obsession. Really, you can play with any berry in season along with a number of ingredients to infuse the milk. I'm thinking of lavender and vanilla bean with blackberries. But, you can also seek warming spices like cardamom and cinnamon for a fall-ish treat.
- Unsalted butter, softened for greasing the ramekins
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 vanilla bean, split in half, seeds scraped
- Grated zest of one lime
- 1/2 cup unrefined sugar
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 large eggs
- Pinch salt
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1 1/2 cups fresh blackberries
- Confectioner's sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter ramekins and sprinkle the insides with sugar. On the stovetop, combine milk, vanilla bean and lime zest. Heat over medium heat until hot to the touch, cover and let steep for at least 15 minutes. Once the milk has steeped, strain and set aside. In the meantime, mix sugar, flour and salt in a large bowl. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in the milk. Drizzle the melted butter in gently, to temper, and then gently mix it in. Drop a few berries into the ramekins and pour the batter over top. Add the rest of the berries after pouring the batter evenly into each of the ramekins. Place all ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes. The clafoutis will rise in the oven and settle upon cooling. You're looking for a golden brown on top. Let it cool to room temperature and sprinkle with confectioner's sugar.