In late summer, Seattle is overrun by blackberries. The dark canes grow wildly along roadsides, in abandoned lots, over fences, across garden beds reserved for other, tamer green things. I know that the prickly, scrambling vines crowd out other species and frustrate fastidious gardeners. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleased to see the canes full of pale flowers in the spring, buzzing with fat bumble bees. And heavy with fruit in high summer.
For me, the arrival of the sweet, dark berries symbolizes everything good about summer. The real, true summer of my childhood. Fireworks and insect bites and Otter Pops and the smell of freshly-cut grass. And pie. Summer would not be summer without a proper, made-from-scratch berry pie.
Of course, only hand-picked wild blackberries will do for such a labor of love. So Beau and I headed off to our favorite berry spot to do battle with the brambles.
Our preferred patch, discovered on one of our twilight walks around the neighborhood, is a dense and towering thicket that hugs Lake Union. It's near a bike path and a boat landing and so is a fairly social place, at least by Seattle standards.
As we picked, we came upon other foragers and passers-by and occasionally stopped to discuss how delicious the berries are this year. We ate handfuls of sun-warmed fruit, unwashed and dusted with blackberry pollen. And still we managed to arrive home with a giant, tumbling pile of berries for pie.
When the berries were cleaned and set safely out of snacking range, I started making the crust. I do not adore baking, as it doesn’t lend itself to improvisation as much as I’d like, but I love making pies and tarts. I like rubbing the cold butter between my thumb and forefinger as I coat it with flour and coax flakiness into the dough. I like the focus it takes to roll out the dough quickly and evenly. I like to feel the weight of of the dough as I press it into the pan and crimp the edges. And I feel a deep satisfaction at the snap of a well-made crust under the fork. It can take the better part of a day to mix and cut-in and roll and chill and shape and bake, but in my opinion, it’s well worth the wait.
Below is my recipe for blackberry pie. Do pick wild berries if you're able. Look for fat, glossy, blue-black berries. They are the sweetest. They also have a complex, jammy flavor cultivated berries often lack. I've added a sprinkling of cardamom, cinnamon and allspice to highlight the dark, spicy notes of the ripe berries.
This pie has a bit of wildness about it. Just like those lush, unbridled blackberry days of summer.
*A note on pie crust: I straddle the Great Pie Crust Debate by using both butter and lard in my crust. The butter adds flavor, but also extra flakiness as the water in the butter is transformed to steam in the oven and creates little pockets throughout the dough. The lard creates flakes as well, adds tenderness and, due to its higher melting point, makes the dough easier to work with. I render my own leaf lard or buy it from Rain Shadow Meats here in Seattle. If you don’t want to use lard, I recommend an all-butter crust. It will be delicious and only a bit harder to work with. If you make sure all your ingredients are cold, cold, cold before you begin, you might not even notice it.
- 1 recipe pie filling (see below)
- 1 lb + 2 oz (4 cups) all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
- 8 oz (2 sticks) butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
- 5 oz (1/2 cup +2 tablespoons) lard, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
- 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
- 3/4 cup cold water
- 3 tablespoons cream or milk
- 1-2 tablespoons turbinado, demerara or sanding sugar (regular old sugar will work, too)
For the filling:
- 1 ¼ cups sugar
- 2 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
- Pinch salt
- ¼ teaspoon cardamom
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 ½ lbs (6 cups) blackberries
- 1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice
Before you begin, make sure your butter, lard and cold water have been in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. If the weather is warm or your kitchen tends to be toasty, chill all your ingredients for at least 30 minutes before you begin.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar and salt. Separate the pieces of chilled butter and toss them in the flour mixture to coat. Do the same with the lard. When all the pieces of fat have been coated in flour, pick up a piece of butter or lard between your thumb and first two fingers. Slide your thumb over the butter or lard while pressing down on it in order to form a long, thin strip. Drop this strip back into the bowl so it becomes coated with flour. Continue until all the pieces of butter and lard have been flattened. Some of the flakes will break and the dough will take on a slightly crumbly or sandy appearance, which is just fine. Place the bowl in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to re-chill the fat.
Drizzle the cold water and vinegar onto the chilled flour and fat mixture, tossing constantly with a flexible silicone or rubber spatula or a large spoon. Continue adding water until the mixture is moist enough to form a dough when you pinch it together. If you have used ¾ cup of water and the dough seems dry, give it a few more turns with your spatula or spoon and then pinch off a golf ball sized piece of dough. Squeeze it and see if it wants to come together into a dough. If it is too crumbly and won’t form a dough. Add a bit more water, a couple teaspoons at a time, until the mixture forms a dough when you pinch it together.
Turn out the dough (it will be shaggy) onto a large work surface and gather it together into a ball. Do not knead it as this will toughen the dough. Divide it in half with a bench scraper or knife. Form each half into a ball and then flatten each ball into a disk about 1 inch thick. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour before rolling. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days, or placed in a ziploc bag and frozen for up to 2 months. If frozen, thaw the dough in the refrigerator overnight and soften slightly at room temperature before rolling out.)
Roll out one disk of dough to roughly 1/4-inch thickness. Place the dough into a pie plate. Lift and press it into the edges of the plate. Do not stretch the dough into the edges as this will make your crust shrink as it bakes. Trim and crimp the edges of your crust and place the pan in the freezer for at least 15 minutes.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the other disk of dough to roughly 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out a circle roughly 1 inch larger than the top diameter of your pie plate. For a latticed pie, cut this circle into wide strips. Place the strips on a plate and refrigerate while you make the filling.
In a large bowl, combine the sugar, cornstarch, salt, cardamom, cinnamon and allspice. Stir to evenly distribute the spices. Add the blackberries and lemon juice. Stir to combine and set aside.
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees.
Remove the pie pan from the freezer and pour the berry mixture into the bottom crust. Place the dough strips from the refrigerator on top of the berries, weaving them into a lattice pattern. Trim the edges to overhang by ¾ inch. Fold the top edges of the lattice over the bottom crust, tuck the edges under and crimp. Place the filled and topped pie back in the freezer to chill for 15 minutes.
I know, I know. There’s a lot of chilling and freezing and waiting around. But taking the time to par-freeze your pie will keep it from slumping in the oven and make sure the lattice and those crimped edges turn out gorgeously. :)
Brush the top crust with a cream or milk and then sprinkle with sugar. Place the pie on a sheet pan and bake until the crust is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 and continue baking until the crust is dark golden brown, about 45-60 minutes longer. I like my crust deeply caramelized; if you like yours less dark, feel free to take your pie out earlier.
Remove the pie from the oven and cool it completely before serving. If you can. It will be tough. But I think pie tastes much better at room temperature than hot from the oven. And this particular pie tastes even better the next day. If you manage to save some for breakfast or an afternoon snack, don’t refrigerate it! This ruins the beautiful, flaky texture of the crust. Just tuck it under a dish towel and leave on the counter overnight.