This Dessert Will Make You Sit Up Straight
James Beard on berries and his easy, satisfying blueberry slumpJames Beard
August 08, 2019
In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to a serenade to summer berries, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more!
Beard on Food: Fruits of Summer
One of nature’s great gifts to us throughout the summer is an abundance of luscious fresh berries. To me these are still the most seasonal of fruits, despite the fact that some of them can be found in our markets year round.
We start with strawberries, from the tiny wild ones you can pick for yourself if you’re lucky enough to live near a strawberry patch and have the necessary patience, to the giant berries with stems still attached that are flown from Arizona and California to all parts of the country—and even to Europe. At their peak, these magnificent specimens have a full, round flavor that is as different in taste from the tiny wild variety as the berries are in size.
Then there are raspberries, of which the red are perhaps my favorites of all summer berries. The black, which are much scarcer, I have never found to be anywhere near as good as their red cousins. I’m sure they must come from the poor side of the family, for they are seedy and completely undistinguished when set side by side with the red raspberries, which have a most delicate and distinctive flavor, whether you eat them picked fresh in the garden, bathe them in sugar and cream, or preserve them in a fine jam.
The gooseberry, alas, seems to be bowing out of the fruit picture, despite the fact that it makes a wonderful jam, fruit tart, and fool.
Next to the strawberry, the juicy blueberry is the berry in most plentiful supply. Here is another fruit you can gather wild, if you live where the high-bush or low-bush blueberries grow. Blueberries, mostly the large cultivated variety you find in the markets in pint and quart containers, are probably eaten more often than any other berry, and in a greater variety of ways. They are superb when served, not chilled but at room temperature, with sugar and heavy cream, even better when covered with maple syrup and either sour cream or yogurt, a combination to dream about. Another partnership to delight the palate is blueberries and peaches. Combine ripe sliced peaches with large ripe blueberries, and give them some brown sugar or maple sugar and heavy cream.
I often take a big bowl of the choicest blueberries, sugar them, and then sprinkle them with kirsch or yellow chartreuse. The liqueur adds great zest to the berries. And have you ever tried peppering blueberries? Sugar them well, give them a few grinds of fresh black pepper and a trifling amount of either Grand Marnier or Cointreau, shake them well to let the pepper sort of mix in, and you’ll have something surprisingly good and delightfully restoring—the spiciness of the pepper does the most wonderful thing for the flavor of blueberries, and for strawberries, too.
Blueberries crop up in all kinds of intriguingly named baked dishes, some of them going back to the time of our ancestors. There’s blueberry buckle and blueberry slump, blueberry kuchen, blueberry crisp, and blueberry pockets. Canada has an extraordinarily good version of blueberry pie made with three crusts instead of the usual two. You line your pan with pastry, put in blueberries and sugar, another layer of pastry, more blueberries and sugar, and cover with the top crust.
Of the puddings, Blueberry Slump is a typical, fine, old-fashioned dessert, homely and thoroughly pleasing.
Cook 1 quart ripe blueberries in a heavy saucepan with 1/2 cup water, 11/2 cups sugar, and a good 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg until well blended and slightly cooked down. Add more nutmeg if the berries seem to need it—this spice goes as well with them as it does with peaches.
While the blueberries cook, combine 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and sift well together. Combine with 1 lightly beaten egg, 3 tablespoons milk, and 2 tablespoons melted butter, and blend very, very well.
When the blueberries have bubbled and boiled until they are thoroughly broken down, drop spoonfuls of the dumpling mixture you have made into the hot sauce. Cover tightly and cook for 10 minutes, then uncover, transfer the cooked dumplings to a serving dish, and spoon the blueberries over them. Serve with heavy cream, whipped cream, or ice cream. And if you cook the same basic mixture of blueberries, sugar, water, and nutmeg down very slowly, a little more than for the slump, until they are well cooked and quite thick, you have a marvelous hot sauce for ice cream.
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