Summer Berry Pudding: The Percussion of Staying Present
There is something to be said for the methodical process of foraging. As you pluck plump, sun-warmed blackberries from their bushes, carefully avoiding the many glittering spider webs festooning the prickly vegetation, you are tapping into an ancient, primal part of your being. The dull “thud” of the first layer hitting the bottom of your bucket is the gentle percussion of staying present. The rich damp air filled with the evaporating mists of last night’s dew fills your lungs as your eyes focus on the black clusters of berries, a texture that will repeat over and over on your eyelids should you close your eyes. Ah, sweet summertime.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, summer means berry season. Wild (or invasive) blackberry brambles sprawl along roadways, thimbleberries hide under their canopy of oversized leaves, and elusive mountain huckleberries beckon pickers like me deeper and deeper into the forest. This time of year, my family spends a lot of quality time in huckleberry patches, where picking these small but intensely flavorful berries becomes our morning or evening activity of choice. We brave the mosquitos to fill our buckets with purple gems to eat in baked goods and save for winter. I’ve always loved this particular seasonal ritual, not just because huckleberries taste amazing, but because it feels like I’m connected with the earth and my ancestors in a way I just don’t feel when strolling through a market or eating at a restaurant.
When we think of our history as humans, we tend to think of primitive hunting and gathering as a small portion of human history, while established agriculture stretches back for ages. In reality, the opposite is true - our ancient ancestors went thousands and thousands of years hunting and gathering before agricultural practices were established. Even today, berry picking is one of the most common forms of foraging practiced by most people. Almost anyone who spends time outdoors will confess to plucking a ripe blackberry on a hike or filling an emptied water bottle with currants while camping. Even those who shy away from wild mushrooms or don’t know anything about wild herbs know that picking berries in the wild is a pleasurable activity indeed. I suppose you could call them the gateway drug of foraging.
Not only does wild berry picking introduce many to the gustatory pleasures to be found from foraging, it also introduces you to the mindset of a focused gatherer. Berry picking can be an enjoyable social activity with friends or family, but it can also become a meditative practice when done solo; the fairly mindless motion of plucking juicy berries leaves plenty of room in the brain for exploration and deep thinking. Perhaps that’s why I meet so many creative people who are also foragers - just the action of foraging is a door to creative thinking. Don’t think of it as boring or mindless, appreciate it for being an opportunity to lose yourself in thought, in the fresh mountain air and the melodical birdsong and the magic of ancient customs flowing through your bones. That’s the real magic.
Magical, too, are the recipes that showcase these fresh summertime gems, that do not hide them away in heavy batters or spiced sauces but instead allow them to pour freely forth in their plump juiciness like garnets or rubies on the plate. That’s why the classic British dessert of Summer Pudding has recently become one of my favorite summertime treats: it is incredibly simple to prepare and allows hand-picked berries to take center stage. Dress it up a bit with impossibly juicy candied strawberries and you have a show-stopping summertime dessert to share with your fellow mosquito-bitten berry pickers. I promise the reward is worth it.
Summer Berry Pudding:
8 cups mixed summer berries (huckleberries, wild raspberries, sliced strawberries, currants, etc.)
½ c. honey
1 loaf stale pre-sliced white sandwich bread
Add all of the berries and the honey to a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring gently. Reduce heat and simmer for about 3 minutes. Fruit should be soft and juicy.
Strain the mixture using a fine strainer, reserving both juice and berries.
Line a 2-quart bowl with plastic wrap.
Cut the crusts off of the white bread. Working with one piece at a time, dip it into the berry juice and then line the inside of the bowl with the dipped pieces. Make sure to fit the bread snugly against itself so there are no gaps or holes.
Fill the bread-lined bowl with the berry mixture, then top the bowl with bread slices dipped in juice.
Lay down a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap and use a flat-bottomed weight (like a frying pan) to press the bread and filling.
Refrigerate overnight, then carefully turn out onto a serving platter.
The beauty of these glossy gems is in their ephemerality; you have to eat them within about an hour of making them or they’ll dissolve into a sticky mess. The hot hardening sugar cooks the berries just enough to release some added tenderness and sweetness while retaining a satisfying crunch. These are the perfect garnish or accompaniment to soft summer berry pudding!
20 fresh strawberries, washed and dried
Non-stick baking mat or parchment paper
1 c. granulated sugar
⅔ c. water
2 tsp. Vanilla extract
First, prepare the strawberries by sliding a skewer into each one so that it holds them steady. Create an area to put the candied strawberries such as a sheet of non-stick parchment paper or a silicone mat on a cookie sheet.
Combine the sugar, water, and vanilla in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then turn up to medium-high and put a candy thermometer in the mixture. Don’t stir anymore but watch that thermometer carefully. Once it reaches 300F, remove the pan from the heat immediately.
Working quickly, dip each strawberry ¾ of the way into the sugar mixture and let the excess drip off before placing it on the non-stick surface to cool and harden. Once cooled, use the strawberry skewers to decorate the summer berry pudding and enjoy your wild proliferation of summer berries!
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