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Take advantage of Oregon caneberries

The Pacific Northwest is well-known for its caneberries, and you can still buy a basket without gasping at their price — compared to elsewhere, at least.

With such affordable abundance, you can feature raspberries, marionberries and all their sweet and juicy cousins in a vast array of summertime desserts.

My favorite is Raspberry & Marionberry Trifle, layer after delectable layer of sponge cake, fresh fruit, soft custard and whipped cream, generously laced with sherry, brandy and even a splash of Grand Marnier if you’re feeling extravagant.

Growing up, the joke in our family was that your age determined just how deep Aunt Meg would scoop your serving, because the alcohol tended to migrate toward the bottom layers (I’ve included an alcohol-free variation in the recipe below).

Restaurants rarely get it right, because it’s simply not cost-effective to include the amount of custard, fruit and liquor necessary to achieve sinful perfection. Sponge cake is not fun to make from scratch, so I’ve always managed to find bakeries willing to supply me with the undecorated sponge layers. Any of the suggested substitutes (angel food, chiffon or pound cake) simply don’t produce perfection.

And then there’s the regional celebrity, the marionberry. Bold, purple and proud, it’s a unique contemporary variety of blackberry that was introduced in Oregon in 1956, after years and years of cross-breeding. The path that plant breeders traveled to obtain this particular berry was circuitous, to say the least, but the creation of the marionberry began with the pairing of a blackberry and a raspberry, which produced a loganberry. Many different crossings sprang from the loganberry, and ultimately, two of those breeds — the Chehalem and the Olallie — were crossed to produce the marionberry.

According to the Oregon Berry Commission, the marionberry is the most widely planted blackberry variety in the world. It’s named after Marion County, where it was first produced. The fruit is medium to large, round in diameter and longer than wide. Compared to evergreen blackberries, they have smaller seeds, are juicier and have an intense, rich “earthy cabernet” flavor with a dark purple color. Their superior flavor makes them ideal for baking, and their large, sturdy structure holds up well in everything from cobblers to preserves.

It’s shaping up to be a fine year for berries, so get to a farmers’ market and load up so you can prepare any of the following treats at home.

McMillan Three-Berry Trifle

Yields 10 to 12 servings.

The equivalent of 2 (8- or 9-inch) rounds of sponge cake

Raspberry jam

2 cups fresh raspberries

2 cups fresh marionberries

2 cups fresh blueberries

1 (8- or 10-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained

½ to ¾ cup dry sherry, or to taste (see note below on alcohol)

½ cup brandy

Optional liquor: about 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier

Soft custard (recipe follows)

1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Cut horizontally through each sponge-cake layer (a serrated knife works best) and gently lay the layers open. Spread the bottom half of each layer with raspberry jam, then place the top half of each sponge layer over the jam, creating jam sandwiches. Cut these sandwiches into 1- or 2-inch cubes. Layer the bottom of a large bowl with a 3-quart capacity (preferably a lovely crystal or glass bowl so the beautiful layers will show) with half of the cake-and-jam cubes. Next spread about half of the berries over the cake cubes, and then half of the crushed pineapple over the berries.

Combine the sherry, brandy and (optional) Grand Marnier in a glass or measuring cup with a pouring spout. Drizzle half of this liquid (or less, depending on your taste) over the mixture, then spoon on about half of the warm custard. Begin layering again, starting with the cake-and-jam cubes, ending with the custard (you may not use all of the custard, depending on the size of your bowl). Refrigerate the trifle at this point for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.

Before serving, spread on the whipped cream and garnish the top with fresh berries. To serve, scoop into individual dessert dishes. Be sure and scoop all the way down through the dessert for each serving, because that’s where all the juices and adult beverages end up. Serves 8 to 10.

SOFT CUSTARD: In top of a double boiler, beat 4 eggs. Mix in ½ cup sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt and 4 cups milk. Stir the mixture over hot water (this can be done directly on the burner if you use a heavy-bottomed pot and don’t get the mixture too hot), stirring constantly until it begins to thicken. When the custard is thick enough to coat the spoon, remove from heat and stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. Makes about 4½ cups custard. Use while warm, or gently reheat before using if making ahead.

NOTE ABOUT SPONGE CAKE: Please, no substitutes such as angelfood, chiffon or pound cake. If you don’t have time to make it from scratch, then find a bakery that will sell you the layers (undecorated, of course).

NOTE ABOUT ALCOHOL: This is an adult-style dessert. To make it alcohol free, you can substitute unsweetened pineapple juice.

Apple-Blackberry Crisp

Yields 6 to 8 servings.

1 pound apples, peeled, cored and sliced

1 pound blackberries

½ cup sugar

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

1½ teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

¾ cup flour

¾ cup packed dark brown sugar

¼ cup rolled oats

¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup cold butter, cut in chunks

Butter a 9-by-9-inch baking pan; set aside. Combine the sliced apples, berries, sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon nutmeg. Spoon into the buttered baking pan.

Combine the walnuts, flour, brown sugar, oats, salt and the remaining 2 teaspoons vanilla, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ½ teaspoon nutmeg. Cut in the butter. Spread the mixture over the apples and bake at 350 degrees until top is crisp and brown, and apples are tender, about 45 to 60 minutes.

— From "Thyme and the River," by Sharon Van Loan and Patricia Lee.

Fresh Marionberry Cobbler

Yields 6 servings.

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

4 cups fresh marionberries

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons shortening

½ cup milk

Blend ½ cup sugar and the cornstarch in medium saucepan. Stir in marionberries and lemon juice. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Pour into ungreased 2-quart casserole. Keep fruit mixture hot in oven while preparing biscuit topping.

Measure flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, the baking powder and salt into bowl. Add shortening and milk. Cut through shortening 6 times; mix until dough forms a ball. Drop dough by 6 spoonfuls onto hot fruit.

Bake at 400 degrees until biscuit topping is golden brown. Serve warm and, if desired, with cream.

Variations:

Fresh Blueberry Cobbler: substitute fresh blueberries for the marionberries.

Fresh Cherry Cobbler: Substitute 4 cups pitted fresh (or frozen and thawed) red tart cherries for the marionberries; increase sugar in fruit mixture to 1¼ cups, cornstarch to 3 tablespoons and substitute ¼ teaspoon almond extract for the lemon juice.

Fresh Peach Cobbler: Substitute 4 cups sliced fresh peaches (peeled) for the marionberries and add ¼ teaspoon cinnamon to the sugar-cornstarch mixture.

Fresh Plum Cobbler: Substitute 4 cups unpeeled sliced fresh plums for the marionberries; increase sugar in fruit mixture to ¾ cup, cornstarch to 3 tablespoons and add ½ teaspoon cinnamon to the sugar-cornstarch mixture.

— Adapted from "Betty Crocker's Cookbook," by the editors of General Mills.

— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.