Weed-free pasture or blackberry pie? You can have both!

For eleven months of the year, I watch with glee as our sheep search and destroy the wild Himalayan blackberry vines that are the curse of fields and streams here in Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest.  Each year we are amazed at our animals’ ability to forestall the re-infestation of our fenced pastures.  Nary has a week gone by but we scheme how to fence even more areas in order to rid the farm of another impenetrable, 10-to-15-feet high blackberry thicket.  Aptly named Rubus discolor, the non-native, invasive blackberry has met its match in Soay sheep.  Once they strip the canes of leaves, we mow the stalks down and watch as our otherwise sweet-tempered flock attacks the emergent re-growth.  Little did we know when we got our first small Soay how effective they would be as warm-blooded WeedEaters.

And then August arrives and our eradication resolve evaporates with the ripening of the remaining blackberries.  Talk about nectar of the gods.  There is nothing quite like a handful of sun-warmed, perfectly ripe berries right off the vine.  With that first mouthful, I am thankful that once again we have failed in our quest to rid Saltmarsh Ranch of Rubus discolor. 


True confession time.  I am a blackberry addict.  Moreover, I tend to go overboard in nearly every new adventure I try.  So it did not surprise my friends and family when I took up blackberry pie-making with a vengeance the first August after we moved here from Chicago.  At first, the pies were welcomed by our new neighbors, but soon they became the zucchini of Little Applegate Road, as in “close the curtains, Fred.  Here comes Priscilla with another one of those darned pies.”  Just in the nick of time, a Minnesotan named Anne Dimock came into my life.  Anne has written an engaging book entitled Humble Pie in which she argues strenuously (and in my case, effectively) for the return of serious pie-making in America.  Anne, her mother Mary before her, her grandmother GeeGee before that, and various other members of their families are pie professionals and I am delighted to have made their acquaintance long-distance through Humble Pie.    

Anne permits and even encourages the practice of freezing uncooked pies for doling out over the winter.  Now why didn’t I think of that?  Life became a lot more sane around here, and relationships with our neighbors were given a welcome boost, when I switched to frozen blackberry pies.  Here’s a pretty good recipe cobbled together from Humble Pie, Better Homes & Gardens, and experimentation at Saltmarsh Ranch:

1.  Pick at least 6 cups of blackberries.  The task goes faster if you wear a long left hand glove designed for rose gardeners, drape an empty marguerita mix bucket over your left forearm to hold the berries, reach in and grasp a cluster of ripe berries with your left thumb and index finger, snip off the cluster with your Felco garden shears or any comparable scissors held in your right hand, and pluck off all the berries at once over the bucket.  Wash and drain the berries.

2.  Toss 5 and 1/2 cups of the berries with the zest of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 cup sugar, and 2/3 cup flour.

3.  Make a double pie crust however you can.  Anne provides a lot of help with crusts in her book.  The only thing she missed is what music to play while making pies, and I am working on that omission.  Recommendations to date?  Any of the Brahms symphonies.  They are sufficiently robust to provide needed support when you are struggling to get the crust just right.      

4.  Put the blackberry mixture in the bottom crust and put on the top crust. 

5.  Freeze the pie as is.  If I plan to use the pie within a few weeks, I usually just put it in a 2-gallon plastic freezer bag, Ziploc or whatever you can get that’s big enough.  If I plan to keep the pie frozen until winter, I cover it with aluminum foil and freeze it, then take off the foil and run the pie through my FoodSaver to minimize air damage in the freezer.  If you are making a 9-inch pie, when frozen it will just barely fit in the larger size FoodSaver bag.

6.  When you are ready to bake the pie, take it out of its freezer bag, cut a couple of slits in the top crust, and pop it in a 425-degree oven right away.  Bake it at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes, then an additional 45-60 minutes at 350 degrees.  It takes a long time to bake a frozen two-crust pie chock full of blackberries.  If you start with a frozen pie, you probably do not need to cover the fluted edge with aluminum foil to prevent over-browning.

Should you be lucky enough to have, in the aggregate, a couple of acres of blackberries as we still do, and you become addicted to pie-making, here is  a tip for conserving space in the freezer, thus allowing you to make even more pies:

Forget the crusts altogether during blackberry-picking season.  Simply put the blackberry/lemon/sugar/flour mixture in an empty pie tin, cover it with foil, freeze it, then pop the mixture out of the pie tin and run it through your FoodSaver.  These pie “innards” stack nicely in the freezer.  When you are ready for a pie, get out the same pie tin, make the crust, add the completely frozen innards (which will fit perfectly if you use the same pan for both steps), pop on the top crust, and bake.  You will need to adjust for your own oven.  Mine does the job well if I cook the pie with aluminum foil covering the fluted edge for 45 minutes and then cook it for another 25-30 minutes with the foil off. 

Besides saving room in the freezer, eliminating the crust part until you are ready for a pie means you can spend all your time in August picking, rather than making crusts.

Maybe some year we will have no noxious blackberry thickets left on our farm and I will spend August lounging in a hammock on the deck, but until then, feel free to drop by Saltmarsh Ranch any time of year for a slice of homemade blackberry pie.  Give me about 3 hours’ advance notice so I can drop what I’m doing, whip up a crust and have the pie coming out of the oven as you arrive.  If you want it a la mode, you will need to stop at the Ruch Country Store for ice cream, preferably vanilla bean.   

For now … 

2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Jim Peterson says:

    Two comments on the “however you can” of pie crusts: the first is that despite the arrival of dietary political correctness in the kitchen since the time of our grandmothers, the taste is better – both the crust itself and more importantly the overall pie effect — using lard. (Or as I think of it, the shift probably occurred under the dual influence of the Home Ec teachers and the Crisco lobby.)

    Secondly and in an off-setting recognition of the value of developing technology, there may be some virtue in the accomplished use of a pastry knife, but I’ve found that the Cuisinart gives a more consistent — not to say perfect — result. Vitally important not to over-process, which is where the taste and texture can go wrong — but this can be handled through restrained use of the Pulse button only.

  2. priscilla says:

    I know you are right about lard, but I just cannot bring myself to look at, much less use, the amount of lard it would take to convert my buckets of blackberries into pies. Remember I’m a blackberry addict. That said, i totally agree with you about the influence of home ec teachers (hi mom!)and the marketing department of Crisco. Tomorrow evening our neighborhood’s premiere pie makers, two of them, are coming for dinner so I’ll have a chance to observe how hard they blanch when they bite into my Crisco pie, report to follow.

    As for Cuisinarts, maybe, but as a broken-down pianist I love every opportunity to show off my hand dexterity.

    Thanks for checking in and contributing to the dialogue, and may the better teams win this week!