If I climbed to the highest ledge of the fence in the backyard, I was face to face with gnarl limbed live oaks peppering the woods that shared a border with our house. Though it was more- or- less strictly forbidden to jump off the fence into the forested world quarantined behind the barrier of wooden planks, I was known to jump into the unknown and land in the underbrush and disappear into the ferns and flora, embarking upon a mapless treasure hunt 20 yards from our backdoor.
I was perched on the edge of the wooden fence, gauging the distance I would need to jump, so as to avoid the bedraggled underbrush enmeshed on the forested side of the fence. As I stood to find my footing and launch myself into the air, the perfunctorily looped laces of my shoe caught an unassuming groove in the wood, and I toppled over, smacking into the ground with a resounding thud while the shoots and rogue branches fractured and crunched beneath me. The fall wasn’t very far, but I fell into a slow, child hewn panic as I examined my legs entangled in the bushes, dripping a thin, sticky red liquid.
“I’m bleeding!!!” I thought to myself, trying to maintain my stealth, but as I extended an arm forward to wipe away the blood, I realized my legs were not the only victim of the fall; my arms, hands and shirt were smeared in red. I gathered myself under the canopy of trees shielding me from the castigating sun on this particularly sweltering Texas day, breathing deeply to steady myself. As I placed my hands on the ground to push myself up, I felt a soft and slightly textured foreign object give way to the weight of my tiny little body, and I froze in horror.
As the lines between my fingers pooled with red, I slowly pulled my hand back to reveal specks of dark flesh embedded in the palm of my hand, and then it hit me; I had landed in a wild blackberry bush. I let out a sigh of relief, untangled my shoes and shorts, pricked myself several times on the thorny branches, and took a step back to examine the massacre of blackberries listlessly strewn along the mangled forest floor.
My skin was sticky and sweet, fragrant with the smell of freshly crushed fruit, and the sun overhead intensified the saccharine odor. At the time, I didn’t even know blackberries had a season, and we were in the thick of it. I didn’t give the bush much more thought, and I proceeded to go about my business in the woods, making sure to keep quiet so as not to give away my disregard for the boundaries my parents had set.
Several years later, in a new house not embroidered by the clutter of forest, my mom came home with gallons upon gallons of fresh blackberries. I watched as she unloaded them onto the island in our kitchen, and pulled out at least a dozen extra-large mason jars. “What are you doing with all of that, Mom?” I inquired? “Making jam,” she quipped.
I don’t recall the process she went through, nor do I recall the amount of time she spent in the kitchen boiling and simmering, flavoring and cooling, but I do, very vividly recall the final product. The smell of stewed berries cut so subtly with lemon, the deep rose color that appeared when I slathered the jam on buttered toast, the stains on my fingertips as I licked them clean, careful to not let any drop go untouched. But most of all I remember my little brother sitting at the head of the table, with an entire loaf of bread and a full jar of jam, dipping the slices into the jar like chips into salsa. It was so good. Transcendent in a way. An expression of fruit as I had never experienced before, except in that fleeting moment of rebellious childhood, when I found myself entangled in the natural habitat of these gentle berries. Raw, fresh, stewed, preserved and consumed without processing or marketing, brands or price tags, just flavor magnified by heat, sugar, and precious time.
As an adult with unbridled access to green markets and seasonal produce, I’ve become accustomed to eating fruits and vegetables in their season’s peak. Every year, as the sporadic pangs of frigid spring days slowly give way to the overwhelming heat of summer, I wait with bated breath for the first sightings of blackberries at the Farmer’s Markets around New York City. Though I can easily purchase blackberries any time of year, I stop myself from doing so. The under ripe tartness of blackberries in winter are an unjust substitute for berries in their prime, and the long months of bitter cold immediately dissipate as you pop the ripe fruit into your mouth on an unforgiving summer day. Around mid- June every year, the presence of blackberries lounging in cardboard pints transports me back to the underbrush of the woods, and the sun soaked kitchen of my pre-teens, and it’s almost as though I’m catching a retroactive glimpse of my kid brother, mouth besmeared with jam and breadcrumbs at the kitchen table. I’ll take them in any form: raw, jam, jelly, pie, cake or cocktail. Just so long as it’s blackberry season.
Blackberry Cake with Lemon-Thyme Buttercream
- 2 1/4 cups Flour
- 2 1/2 tsp Baking Powder
- 1/2 tsp Salt
- 1/2 cup Butter (softened)
- 1 1/2 cups Sugar
- 2 Eggs (I like to use Duck Eggs, but regular works just fine)
- 1 Packet Vanilla Sugar
- 2 cups Fresh Blackberries
- 1 tbsp Olive Oil Extra Virgin
- 1/2 cup Butter (softened)
- 2 1/2 cups Powdered Sugar
- 1/4-1/2 cup Fresh Lemon Juice
- 1 1/2 tbsp Lemon Zest
- 1 Bunch Fresh Thyme
Pre Heat the over to 350F
In a large boil, combine flour, salt and baking powder
In a separate bowl, combine, butter, sugar, vanilla sugar, eggs and olive oil. Mix on high for about two minutes until smooth.
Add dry ingredients to the batter, alternating flour and blackberries until everything is well integrated, and mix for 2-3 minutes.
In two greased 8" round cake pans, pour the batter. Bake on 350F for 25-30 minutes. Set aside and let cool completely.
While the cake is cooling, steep the thyme in lemon juice until desired flavor (I usually let it sit for about an hour, but if you want a stronger thyme flavor, you can let it steep for up to 4.)
For the Frosting:
Mix together softened butter and powdered sugar in a large bowl for several minutes.
Discard thyme, and strain remaining lemon juice if need be.
Add the lemon juice and lemon zest to the butter and powdered sugar mixture, and mix on high until frosting is at your preferred texture. If you want a thicker frosting, add more powdered sugar 1/4 cup at a time.
Remove cakes from their pans, and smother frosting on top of one of the cakes. Set the unfrosted cake onto the frosted cake to create the layer. Frost the rest of the cake.
Store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.