Some of my loveliest late-summer memories are of foraging for wild blackberries in the pastures, woodland thickets, and shoulders of country lanes in the rural communities and small towns where I grew up in upstate South Carolina.
We'd come in from those outings tired and sweaty (we had to wear long sleeves, thick jeans, and sturdy shoes as protection not only from the brambles but crawling varmints), our hands and wrists scratched and deeply stained with purple, filled with at least as many berries as we had in our pails. I could close my eyes and literally see mound upon mound of shiny purple-black fruit.
Nowadays, those wild spots for foraging have dwindled, and with the careless way that pesticides and herbicides have been used on the shoulders of country lanes, gathering from those once-choice spots is no longer really safe. Unless I get up to visit my parents while the brambles that edge their and their neighbors' properties are in fruit, I have to be content with cultivated cane berries from the market.
While they're far more expensive than wild ones, and never seem to have the same intense, concentrated flavor and natural sweetness, they're still worthwhile and the rush of nostalgia that they inevitably bring more than makes up for their deficiencies.
Fortunately, as the season for cane berries winds to a close, the cultivated ones can often be had at a very reasonable price. When they are, I can never pass them up. And my favorite way to cook them is in an old-fashioned cobbler, the kind that has a homemade pastry rather than that now-popular batter thing that rises as it bakes to form a cake-like top crust.
And if there are enough berries to make the cobbler really deep so that there can be an intermediate layer of pastry that turns into dumplings when baked, so much the better.
Blackberry cobbler was by far my favorite childhood summer dessert, and whenever I have one baking in my oven, it takes me back to my mother's and grandmothers' kitchens, and fragrantly recalls those carefree summers that we raced through barefoot and shirtless.
But cobblers also somehow whisper of autumn for me, and now that I'm actually in my autumn years, the poignant reminders of those carefree childhood summers, coupled with the warm promise of fall, have become more precious than ever.
Blackberry Bourbon Cobbler
My mother often froze the berries that didn't make it into a cobbler or her jam pot, so that when autumn and winter set in, we could have a fragrant little bit of summer at the table. So if you don't find good fresh berries or the ones you do find aren't very promising, by all means try individually quick frozen (IQF) berries, which work every bit as well as fresh ones in a cobbler.
6 cups blackberries, rinsed well and drained
1-1¼ cups sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1-2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice or vinegar
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 recipe Basic Pastry (recipe follows)
4 tablespoons instant-blending or all-purpose flour
1 large egg white lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon cold water
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar
Vanilla, cinnamon, or dulce de leche ice cream, for serving, optional
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 400° F. Put the berries in a ceramic or glass bowl and sprinkle them with sugar to taste and the cinnamon, lemon juice or vinegar, and bourbon. Toss gently and set aside while you make the pastry.
2. Roll out 2/3 of the pastry and line a 9-to-9½-inch deep-dish pie plate or 9-inch round casserole with it. Trim edges of crust so that pastry overlaps sides by about half an inch. Lightly prick bottom with fork. Instead of lining the dish, you can instead put crust only around the edges and leave the bottom bare, then lay strips of pastry in between layers of the berries (see step 3). They'll become like dumplings.
3. Sprinkle instant-blending flour over the berries, fold it in, and pour them into the prepared dish. Level with spatula. Roll out remaining pastry, trim it to cover top of the cobbler with an overlap of about half an inch. Cut vent holes in pastry with a small, decorative cutter and lay the pastry over the berries. Moisten edge with cold water and fold bottom pastry over it, then crimp the edges to seal them.
4. If you like, you may cut decorative shapes out of the excess pastry, paint the backs with cold water, and lay them over the edges of the crust. Brush the top crust lightly with diluted egg white and sprinkle it with turbinado sugar.
5. Set the dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake center of oven 25 minutes, then reduce temperature to 375 degrees. Bake until the filling is bubbling at the center and the crust is golden brown, about 30-35 minutes longer. Let it cool on a wire rack for 15-20 minutes before serving it plain or with ice cream.
Makes enough to make 2 9-inch pie shells, 1 double crust pie
10 ounces (about 2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) chilled lard or shortening, cut into bits
4 ounces (8 tablespoons) chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits
¼ to ½ cup ice water
1. Sift or whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the shortening and butter with a pastry blender until the flour resembles coarse meal with random lumps of fat no larger than small peas. Stir in ¼ cup of ice water and work it in. Continue adding water by spoonfuls as needed until the dough is holding together but not wet.
2. Gather the pastry into two balls (for the above recipe, make one a little larger than the other) press each one into a 1-inch thick flat disk, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes or for up to 2 days. Let it come almost to room temperature before rolling it out.