When my brother and I were about seven years old, my parents decided to convert our backyard sandbox into a miniature strawberry patch. Considering that no one in my immediate family was (or is) much of a gardener, this was a pretty big deal. At that point, the closest I’d ever come to home-grown food was the handful of gnarly apples that our ancient little tree managed to produce every other year and the crazy mass of rhubarb that grew around our sandbox-turned-strawberry-patch. Compared to our across-the-street neighbors’ perfectly trim, maintained vegetable garden, our 3’x5′ strawberry box wasn’t exactly impressive, but that didn’t stop my brother and me from running out to the yard every day to check on our strawberries’ progress.
The first few years were pretty disappointing…only a couple of teeny-tiny (yet sweet!) berries appeared among the leaves, which we quickly gobbled up. Each year seemed to be a bit better, though, and by the time we put our house up for sale in 2003 our strawberry patch had quite a few juicy red berries to boast. Of course it happened that just when our little plant was starting to thrive we had to pack up and leave….but isn’t that the way it always seems to go? Sigh.
Still, even those tiny red sandbox strawberries taught me an important lesson…garden-grown produce is not in the same league as store-bought. Not even close. It goes for anything: berries, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, carrots, you name it! I love this time of year when the farmer’s market is in full swing and our green-thumbed friends and neighbors gift our family with “real” fruits and veggies. It’s also the time of year for blackberry picking, one of my favorite parts of summer!
When we first moved to the area and discovered it teeming with wild blackberry bushes I was beside myself with the excitement of berry-picking. I loved the rustic feeling of heading down the driveway with a bucket swinging from my hand, plunking in berry after berry to the point of near-overflow. I never minded all the scratches that covered my wrists and shins after a session of blackberry picking; it was all worth it to get that perfect patch of berries tucked among the thorns. I always felt a little like Laura Ingalls Wilder, collecting a bounty of wild blackberries to bake into pies and eat over porridge (aka oatmeal).
To this day I’m still a berry-picking fanatic. I often venture down to the best bushes on our road after dinner and fill a bowl or two with ripe, gigantic blackberries. Secretly I love to close my eyes and just breathe in the smell of them. It brings back a flood of memories of hot summer days at our county fair, pie-baking with my friends, and squeezing in one last trip to the bushes on the night before the first day of school. This year I went a little crazy and had to fill three gallon-size ziplock bags with blackberries to freeze since there’s only so many that my family can eat up while they’re fresh. I also made sure to bake a blackberry pie, which my dad has deemed his favorite pie in the world.
The quality of a pie is largely determined by the quality of the fruit inside it, and that’s what makes my wild blackberry pie extra-delicious. I never buy blackberries from the store since they grow so plentifully around here, but earlier this year I had store-bought blackberries at a friend’s house and was shocked by the difference in flavor. All I can say is that those seedy little berries in the plastic containers are not real blackberries. Wild blackberries are so much sweeter, softer, juicier, and more fragrant that I can’t even think of them as the same fruit. Sorry to diss the store-boughts, but it’s the cold hard truth!
While I’ll never say no to a fresh blackberry straight off the bush, sprinkled into a fruit salad, or served over vanilla ice cream (gah), they really shine in this pie. The filling is kept simple to let the blackberries dominate, but the flavors of bright lemon and warm vanilla add a perfect little enhancement to the sweet berries. This recipe also uses tapioca starch (tapioca flour) to thicken the filling. I like the mild, slightly-sweet flavor of tapioca better than cornstarch, which has a more “starchy” taste, but you could always substitute it in a pinch. I’ve never been a pro at making pie crust (far from it, in fact), but this crust was surprisingly easy to work with. It’s an all-butter crust (yay for flavor!), and as long as you make sure that your ingredients are extremely cold and you’re careful not to add more water than necessary, you’ll end up with tender, flaky crust. I used to take the shortcut of buying a pre-made Pillsbury pie crust, but homemade is so much better. If you’re willing to brave making your own crust, I promise the end result will be worth the time and effort!
So…it just occurred to me that I’ve suggested that this recipe is unattainable to anyone who doesn’t happen to have blackberries growing out their back door. You know, since wild berries are so superior. While this is true, I hate to alienate all of you poor wild blackberry-less souls, so I’ll let you know that you could make this pie with store-bought blackberries. Fresh or frozen. I can’t say your pie will be the same, but it will probably still taste pretty good. It might even taste really good. You could also use any type of berry you like (blueberries, raspberries, loganberries, etc.) and I’m guessing you’d still end up with a darn delicious pie. So go ahead! I’ll shut up about the superiority of wild berries. But before I shut up, if you do have access to the wild ones, your pie will be even more amazing. Just keepin it honest! 😉
Makes one 9-inch double-crust pie
For the crust:
2 & 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into small cubes
1/3-1/2 cup ice water
For the filling:
6 cups blackberries
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1/2 cup sugar (add more to taste if your berries aren’t super sweet)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg, beaten
Extra sugar, for sprinkling
Place the flour, salt, and 1 tsp sugar into a food processor* and pulse once or twice to combine. Add in the chopped butter and process for about 10 seconds, or until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pour the water through the food chute 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing 2-3 times after each addition. As soon as the dough starts to stick together, pat it into a ball.
*If you don’t have a food processor, simply whisk together the dry ingredients and then cut in the butter using a pastry cutter or two forks. Sprinkle the water in 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing with a fork after each addition. When the dough sticks together, pat it into a ball.
Divide the dough ball in half and flatten each half into a thick disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.
When ready to make the pie, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. On a floured surface, roll out one of the pie dough discs into an 11-inch circle, then carefully transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Gently press the crust into the pan and refrigerate while you prepare the filling.
Place the blackberries in a large bowl and sprinkle with the tapioca starch, sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla. Gently fold or toss the mixture until the berries are coated. Let the berries macerate (release their juices) while you roll out the second pie crust. If desired, cut the dough into 1/4-1/2″ strips for a lattice crust.
Take the pie plate out of the fridge and brush the bottom crust with beaten egg. Spoon in the berry filling and top with the second crust. If you’re making a lattice crust, weave the strips of dough onto the pie and smooth out the edges with your fingers. Cut off any excess pie dough around the sides, leaving enough overhang to crimp the edges. Brush the top crust with the remaining egg and sprinkle with sugar if desired.
Bake the pie for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake for an additional 20-30 minutes. When the crust is golden-brown and the filling is bubbly, remove from the oven. If the edges are browning too fast, loosely cover with aluminum foil. Cool the pie for at least an hour before slicing.
(Crust and filling recipes adapted from The Baker Chic)