Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's not just about blackberries

In my AP English class this spring, we read Seamus Heaney's poem, "Blackberry Picking" (see the bottom of the post for poem). My students had a difficult time understanding the larger message of the poem. They kept telling me it was just about a guy reflecting on how he used to pick blackberries. I kept asking them to dig a little deeper. "Why would a guy write a poem just about blackberries?," I asked. "What is Heaney really trying to say?" With some coaching and some digging, they were slowly able to see that Heaney was really trying to say that it's the little moments in life that shape us. 

So when I was thinking of a treat to bake for my students on the morning of the three-hour AP exam this May, I remembered pinning a recipe on Pinterest for blackberry pie bars. I baked the bars and gave them to my students with a note reminding them that "it's not just about blackberries" and to dig deeper into the literature on the exam.
The recipe calls for packages of frozen blackberries, but I had some in the freezer I bought from the fruit stand near my apartment (three pints for $3!). 
The bars are filled with a custard that gets mixed with the blackberries on top of a shortbread crust. The recipe makes quite a bit of custard. I'd recommend not using all of it when baking these bars, as mine came out a bit thick.
The shortbread crust is made in the food processor. It's been great having my new toy. She's gotten quite a workout since Christmas! The shortbread dough is then patted down into the bottom of a 9x13 pan and baked for 10-15 minutes.
The blackberries are added to the custard mixture and then poured on top of the shortbread. I would use less custard when making these again. The pan didn't overflow, but it was close. Scoop some of the remaining shortbread mixture on top of the custard and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top crust is golden brown.
Here is the recipe, adapted from Joy the Baker:

Blackberry Pie Bars

Prep Time: 30 minutes | Bake Time: 55 minutes
For the Crust and Topping:
Zest of 2 lemons
1½ cups granulated sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
For the Blackberry Filling:
4 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2 packages of frozen blackberries (or 6 cups fresh)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9×13-inch baking pan with butter; set aside.
2. In a small bowl, combine the granulated sugar and the lemon zest. Using your fingers, rub the zest into the sugar until all of the sugar has been moistened. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the lemon sugar, all-purpose flour and salt. Pulse a few times to combine. Add the butter and continue to pulse until the pieces of butter are no larger than the size of peas, about 10 to 12 pulses.
3. Measure out 1½ cups of the crumb mixture to use for the topping and put it in the refrigerator until needed. Press the remaining mixture into the bottom of the pan. Bake the crust until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool for about 10 minutes while you prepare the filling.
4. To make the filling, whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in the sugar, sour cream, flour and salt until thoroughly combined. Gently fold in the blackberries. Spoon the mixture evenly over the crust and make sure all of the blackberries are in one layer and not sitting on top of one another.
5. Sprinkle the reserved crust mixture evenly over the filling. Bake until the top is lightly browned, about 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool for at least 1-2 hours before cutting (so the custard can set).
And for those of you who like poetry, here is the poem my AP students wrestled with this spring:

"Blackberry Picking" by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

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