Thursday, July 28, 2011

Elderberry buckle, anyone?

Earlier in the month, I blogged about the blue elderberry bushes (Sambucus cerulea) growing near our house (click here to read that post). At that time they were just starting to ripen. Now they are at their peak.

These elderberries ripen in waves so the harvest season extends over quite a few weeks. The other day my mother, who is here for a longer visit, came home from her morning walk with a 3-gallon bucket full of berries. She then painstakingly stripped the berries from the stems and we ended up with a big batch of fruit—plump, juicy, and mouthwateringly tart.

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Bucket full of blue elderberries
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Close-up, these elderberries look remarkably like blueberries…
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…although they’re much smaller and taste nothing like blueberries
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Stripping the berries off the stems is the most tedious part

My wife froze most the berries for use later in the year, and from the rest she made a buckle. If you have no clue what a buckle is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t either. A buckle is an old-fashioned baked desert consisting of a layer of cake batter at the bottom, heaped with fruit and sometimes topped with streusel. Buckles are particularly popular in New England and are typically made with blueberries although any berry works. As the cake batter rises during baking, it pushes the fruit up, causing the streusel topping to “buckle,” hence the name.

The recipe my wife used came from Allrecipes.com, and it omits the streusel topping. We prefer this version because it’s less sweet and allows the fruit to take center stage.

Elderberries are quite sour even when ripe and have a slight note of astringency and bitterness, which I’m very fond of. They bake beautifully, retaining their shape while releasing their juice which then combines with the sugar that was added to the berries. The result is a unique flavor unlike any other fruit. I’ve had elderberries in a pie, crisp, and now buckle, and I’ve loved all of them. Other great uses are jams and syrups, which due to inherent acidity of the fruit end up being nicely balanced.

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Elderberry buckle (sans streusel topping)

“Our” elderberry species (Sambucus cerulea; sometimes referenced as Sambucus mexicana) is native to the Western United States and Mexico and produces fruit covered with a pale blue powder. That powder, called “bloom” or “glaucescence” by botanists, is the reason why the berries look so much like small blueberries. Underneath, the fruit is the same blackish purple color as other elderberry species. Sambucus cerulea is reputed to have the best tasting berries of all, and I agree.

If you ever have the chance to try something made from these wonderful berries (dessert, jam, etc.), don’t miss it. As for us, we’re already planning another harvesting expedition on the weekend!

2 comments:

  1. I can't help but hear the Holy Grail quote "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries" whenever I hear or see the word "elderberry".

    Maybe "elderberry buckle" will someday replace it in my brain, but I doubt it.

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  2. Alan, this made me laugh so hard I almost p***d my pants :-) It's been way too long since I've seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I'll put it at the top of our Netflix queue. There are so many memorable quotes in that movie!!

    BTW, I looked up the whole quote and it is:

    "I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries."

    LOL.

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