Summer Berry Baking

It is high summer, and there has been no appreciable rain here in Athens since sometime around the beginning of June. This is very odd; the weather around Athens is usually humid, wet, and rainy, with only a bit of a dry spell starting around the middle of July that only lasts until the end of August, when the autumnal rains begin.

This unseasonal lack of rain has forced the local farmers to irrigate their crops more than usual, and has taken a toll on the local wild foods. While I generally prefer the smaller wild blackberries to their gigantic, somewhat swollen domesticated cousins, this year, there is no real choice between them. The wild ones are quite seedy, small and juiceless, due to the lack of rain. Though my yard is surrounded by hedgerow on three sides that is mainly composed of wild grapes and blackberries, I am leaving the entire harvest of the latter to the birds who seem to be enjoying them a great deal.

Instead of the wild berries, on my last trip to the farmer’s market, I picked up a pint of domesticated blackberries, along with a pint of raspberries and my usual quart of blueberries. Zak saw the bounty as I set my purchases down on the counter and begged me to make “Purple Muffins.”

I cannot bear to see anyone beg, so of course, I complied with his most sincere wish.

However, the original recipe for “Purple Muffins” had been eaten in a catastrophic computer accident that happened about three years ago, so I had to improvise, and the resulting recipe turned out to make muffins that were definately not purple, but certainly tasted quite good.

Which means that I have to go back to the drawing board on the “Purple Muffin” recreation project.

A word about the technicolor muffins in question–they were born out of a huge harvest of wild blackberries, and some fresh and frozen raspberries and blueberries I had on hand way, way, way back in the day when Zak and I lived in Athens the first time. We had gone to a local park and had come back with quart upon quart of wild blackberries, and since I was terrified of pie crust at the time, I decided to make muffins.

I discovered while stirring the berries into the batter, that fresh blackberries are very fragile–most of them broke and left great gouts of purple juice which stained the batter a brilliant reddish violet. When they baked, the muffins retained the vibrant hue, and so, were named, quite aptly, “Purple Muffins.”

Everyone loved them, not only because they tasted good, but because of the purple color. In a town like Athens, where people still make and sell tie-dye, and vibrantly colored hair is quite the norm, one can see why muffins that were roughly the color of one of Jimi Hendrix’s flashier shirts would be popular.

So, while the resulting muffins were not purple, even though I was quite rough with mixing the berries into the dough, they did taste good. I based them in large part upon Cook’s Illustrated “Best Blueberry Muffin” recipe, though I changed it up a good bit. For one thing, the directions for mixing the things were so anal-retentive, one would think that they were mixing up rocket fuel or something delicate like a souffle, not a simple quick bread like muffins. For another thing, most of the CI recipes are too bland for my taste. Thier version eschewed vanilla, which I think is an utter mistake in most baking endeavors. They also ignored lemon as a flavoring, which I think is even more of a mistake in anything involving berries.

A word about vanilla extract, and lemon.

First the vanilla–I really like to use Penzey’s double-strength vanilla extract. It has twice the amount of vanilla flavor as most regular extracts, which means one of two things. Either you can use half as much as you normally use, or you can use as much and end up with a double punch of vanilla in your recipe.

Guess which venue I choose? Yep, double the flavor, double the fun. Less is sometimes more, but in my book, more is almost always better.

As for the lemon, I generally prefer to use lemon zest to get a good, pure lemon essence in most of my baking recipes. The oil of lemon, which is where the quintessential flavor of lemon resides, is found in the yellow part of the lemon peel. The same is true of all citrus fruit–if you want the true flavor of the fruit and not the acidity–use the zest. And as everyone who reads this blog regularly knows, Chef of Southpark and I favor the microplane grater for zesting all sorts of citrusy goodness for my recipes.

But, sometimes, things go awry, and there is nary a lemon to be found in my refrigerator. That doesn’t happen often, but it happened yesterday when I went to bake these muffins.

So, what do I do as a backup plan? Use lemon extract?

Nope. I generally don’t use lemon extract–it tastes too–medicinal, or like furniture polish or something, to me. I use it for a very few things.

Nope, instead, I reach for the tiny bottle Boyajian Pure Lemon Oil which lives next to my extracts in the spice cabinet. This is nothing but the oil, pure and simple, that lives in the zest, squeezed out and put into a little bottle. The price is somewhat high, but so little of it is used, that it lasts a long time. I have a larger bottle of their lime oil which has lasted me years. Just keep it in a cool dark place and bring it out and use it by the drop, or at the most, by the 1/8 of a teaspoonful.

Back to the muffins. The CI recipe also called for frozen berries (in order to avoid staining the dough, as I recall) and not nearly as many as I would like. Since I had so many berries, I decided to use a full two cups, and to hell with the consequences.

The batter suffered no ill effects. The only issue was that it made more batter than I needed to make a dozen muffins, so I ended up baking two more muffins worth in a tiny loaf pan, thus making a cute little quick bread that I am going to take with me when we pick up Morganna tomorrow, so she can have a snack while we drive.

Summer Berry Muffins


2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup sour cream (use a fluid measuring cup)
1/4 cup half and half or milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
zest of one lemon or scant 1/8 teaspoon lemon oil
2 cups fresh mixed berries, picked over, rinsed and dried
about 1-2 tablespoons turbinado or demararra sugar for sprinkling


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Mix together flour, baking powder, salt and spices in a smallish bowl.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk egg until thick and uniformly yellow. Whisk in sugar and beat until thick and lemon-colored. Whisk in butter, and continue beating until completely combined.

Whisk together sour cream, vanilla and half and half. Whisk into the egg, sugar and butter mixture.

Mix together flour mixture and berries, then combine with the wet ingredients, folding with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Make sure to mix thoroughly, and don’t worry about mashing the berries a little. It will make streaks of color in your dough, but who cares, really? It will taste fine.

Either spray your muffin tins with baking spray or line with paper muffin cups. Using a large ice cream scoop (the kind with the ratchety thing that scrapes the scoop out of of the scooper), or a spoon, portion out the dough, which will be thick and heavy, into the muffin cups. If you don’t have an ice cream scoop, run out and get one for this recipe–this is the best and easiest way to portion out muffin dough without making a godawful mess.

Sprinkle the tops with a bit of turbinado or demarerra sugar for crunch and sparkle. (Sparkle is always good, don’t you think?)

Bake for 10-15 minutes, then turn the pans back to front in order to get them to brown evenly. Bake for another 10-15 minutes, for total of 20-30 minutes. (If you have a convection oven as I do, the baking time will be closer to 20 minutes. For a regular oven, it will be more like 25-30 minutes.)

Remove from oven and cool for a couple of minutes in the pan, then remove from the pan and allow to cool on a rack. These are good warm, but even better after they cool completely–then, they are irresistible, as the flavors have really melded together and the berries are no longer molten nuggets of hot death for your tongue.

Makes 12-14 muffins, depending on how large your muffins are.

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