When I was small, I used to pick blueberries with my grandmother—not so unusual, I’m sure. But instead of picking them in a lush, pastoral landscape dotted with farms and rolling hills, we’d scour an old cemetery in the heart of nickel-mining country in northern Ontario, Canada, a region as barren as the moon. Yet scattered across the rocky manmade tundra were wild diamonds—blueberries. They grew on bushes so low to the ground that the fierce northern winds howled right past, and so tough and sturdy that you might have thought their stubborn roots plunged to the center of the earth. But the berries were as tiny as sugar peas and as sweet as jam. A handful, still warm from the sun, was bliss; a whole pie was unspeakable.
Nowadays, I can’t often get my hands on wild blueberries, but fortunately, cultivated blueberries are always around. There’s a marked difference in flavor, texture, and intensity, however, between summer berries and those from any other time. So my first rule for making blueberry desserts is to stay faithful to the seasons. Wait until summer to buy them, and try to buy from a local producer.
Look for plump, unwrinkled blueberries with no signs of mold, decay, or crushing. They should be evenly dark bluish purple with little or no green or white. Store the berries loosely covered at room temperature for up to a day. For any longer than that, they keep best in the refrigerator; line a shallow container with paper towels, put the berries in a single layer, and cover with more paper towels. Wash blueberries only at the last minute and blot them dry with paper towels.
A happy marriage with nuts, fruit, and cream
What I love about blueberries is their complex sweetness and faint sour tickle. Besides lemon, their flavor is a nice match for other fruits like oranges, bananas, limes, and apricots, and they marry beautifully with most other berries, especially raspberries, strawberries, and members of the blackberry family. Hazelnuts, almonds, and pecans are perfect partners, with the richness of the nuts balancing the tang of the fruit. I find that white chocolate is a better match for blueberries than dark chocolate, and I often combine the two in tarts. Cream cheese, custard, whipped cream, and just about any other dessert-friendly dairy product are excellent foils for the fruit. Finally, blueberries’ faint sourness makes them especially good when laced with interesting sweeteners, like maple syrup, honey, and brown sugar or raw-sugar.
Blueberries have two curious flavor allies: cinnamon and lemon. I sometimes add a generous measure of either one of these flavorings to blueberry desserts, giving me a lemon-blueberry pie filling or a blueberry-cinnamon bar. But you don’t even need to go that far. Just a tiny amount—a squeeze of lemon or a pinch of cinnamon—enhances the berries’ own fruity flavor, much the same way vanilla extract complements chocolate. Such a small amount of cinnamon or lemon won’t be detectable in the finished dessert, but it will add perceptible depth and complexity. Even in recipes that don’t call for either, I almost always add one or the other, often both, and am delighted with the results.
You might wonder why my recipes for ice cream, bars, and sauce all involve cooking the berries. What you lose in freshness and visual appeal (the berries go from indigo blue to indigo black), you make up for in flavor. As the blueberries cook, whether they’re on the stovetop or in the oven, some of their water evaporates, thereby concentrating the fruit’s sweetness and flavor.
Tips for baking with frozen blueberries
Fresh blueberries freeze brilliantly, and individually quick frozen (IQF) berries of both wild and cultivated varieties are widely available. IQF means the berries have been frozen individually rather than as a large clump, which makes them perfect for baking.
To freeze your own “IQF” berries, scatter clean, dry berries in a single layer on a baking sheet. Freeze on the sheet until the fruit is solid-and then transfer the berries quickly to freezerproof bags or containers. Use within four to six months.
For most recipes, you shouldn’t thaw the berries before using them. The thin skins tend to all but disintegrate, leaving a purple, juicy mess where lovely berries once sat.
Mix them into batters gently and quickly, using as few strokes as possible to avoid crushing the fruit and turning the batter a-glaring lavender.
For blueberry pancakes, cook the pancake on-one side and sprinkle on the frozen berries just before flipping.
In some batters, frozen blueberries can streak the batter an-alarming shade of green. This occurs in alkaline conditions, such as batters with baking powder and no acidic ingredients like buttermilk, yogurt, or lemon juice. To minimize this risk, be sure the berries are solidly frozen and mix them in-swiftly and gently.