This is a picture of a cornmeal cake topped with ginger crumble and five different kinds of berries. Yep. You read that right. Five.
Because over the weekend, Erlend and I headed to the Oregon Berry Festival to take advantage of the state’s annual harvest of berries. Starting in June and ending as late as early September, Oregon has an insane amount of berries come into season. Name any berry and I’ll bet you Oregon grows it. You can find any kind of berry you want here —we’ve got tons of obscure varieties like tayberries and olallieberries, as well as more standard fare like strawberries and blueberries. Since it’s actually a little overwhelming at times (first world problems, I know), it makes sense that we have a whole festival dedicated to the damn things:
The festival was pretty awesome. In addition to having a large variety of berries, they had other berry-related goods like jams, liquors, food and drink:
Despite our excitement, Erlend and I played it pretty conservatively (we’re both trying to save money) and just bought a flat of berries. I wouldn’t call it too much of a loss though — the lady that we bought the berries from offered us a “mixed berry flat”, meaning that we could get 6 pints of any kind of berry for the price of 5 pints! An awesome deal that meant that we walked away with this HUGE box for only $15:
I let Erlend pick the berries since he has a huge interest in foraging and gardening and is always stopping to try random fruits along the road whenever we walk anywhere. Starting from the top left in the picture, we ended up with a pint of marionberries, tayberries, olallieberries, obsidian blackberries, gooseberries, and Kiowa blackberries.
According to Erlend, marionberries are the most cultivated of blackberries in the US and are a mix of a chehalem blackberries and olallieberries. These berries were tart and firm, and didn’t deviate too much from the standard blackberry flavor that I was familiar with.
Tayberries are the reddish berries in the middle of the top row of the picture. These are apparently a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry. They were my favorite of the bunch as they were the sweetest had the softest and smoothest texture. Often times after I eat blackberries, I get frustrated by the way its seedy texture leaves seeds in between my teeth. Tayberries definitely had raspberry’s softer texture.
To the right of the tayberries were olallieberries, which are a cross between loganberries and another blackberry crossberry called youngberries (confusing, I know). These were my least favorite of the bunch, as I found them to be the tartest and firmest.
Next up is the obsidian blackberry, which is just a straight-up blackberry. They were smaller than the Kiowa blackberries (the berries in the bottom-right pint, also straight-up blackberries), which were monstrous (some were as big as my thumb!). The obsidian blackberries, however, were sweeter than the Kiowas and had a better flavor.
In between the obsidian and Kiowa blackberries were gooseberries, which reminded me more of grapes (or currants, maybe?) than blackberries. Its texture was more similar to the grape, and definitely had a flavor that was more grape-like than berrylike. Definitely tarter than a grape, but not as tart as currants.
Satisfied with our taste test (See that picture above, on the right? That’s our friend KC expressing his approval for the tayberries), Erlend and I hopped on our bikes carelessly, eager to ride home and eat the rest of our bounty. When we excitedly opened my pannier to snack on the delicious berries, we both gasped — half of the berries had gotten crushed during the 3.5 mile bike ride home! My pannier was dripping with ripened berry juice, a casualty from the colorful carnage.
While Erlend grumbled and rushed to salvage the berries still in tact, I raised my eyebrows at the pile of mushy berries he was sorting out. Surely it was a crime to waste these oh-so-fresh and ripe berries! Who cares if they were crushed, mushy, and to soft to eat by hand? There must be a baking opportunity somewhere in this.
And indeed there was:
Opportunity in the form of a mixed berry cornmeal cake with ginger crumble!
This is one of those recipes where, when life hands you lemons (or, in this case, crushed berries), you turn around and make lemonade. Several things could have gone wrong with this recipe had I not just gritted my teeth and powered through. The crushed berries were just the start. There was also the fact that, since I was in a mad rush to finish my baking early in the morning (so as to beat the afternoon sun turning my kitchen into a human oven), I misread the instructions and realized that I didn’t have the baking pan I needed for the recipe only after I’d done the three things I needed to make the cake: macerate the berries, mixed the ginger crumble topping and the cake batter.
But no worries. It all turned out well:
This recipe comes from Vintage Cakes, a cookbook from Julie Richardson (a.k.a. the head pastry chef of Baker & Spice, a beloved local bakery in Portland) that I’ve had a lot of success with (past successes from this cookbook include Kentucky Bourbon Butter Cake, a personal favorite of mine on this blog, and the glamorous Lemon and Almond Streamliner Cake). The cookbook is dedicated to updating old-fashioned recipes (some of which she found in a random box in her bakery’s attic!) and turning them into timeless classics with updated ingredients and flavors.
In this case, this recipe for berry cake apparently first appeared in a Betty Crocker advertisement in April 1945 (that’s 68 years ago. Crazy!) where it was touted as “super for supper” and “luscious for lunch”! Eitherway, I’ll stand behind the fact that this would make a great summer dessert. Julie Richardson updated the recipe by adding cornmeal into the batter, giving the cake a pleasing texture that complements the berries softness and the ginger crumble quite well. The cake would be perfect with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or dollop of whipped cream.
Some baker’s notes:
- The recipe calls for 1 pound of berries — I used a mix of semi-crushed Kiowa blackberries, marionberries, obsidian blackberries, olallieberries, and tayberries. You can use any kind of berries you want though — just be sure that they are ripe and fresh. If the berries are small, you can leave them whole, but if they’re fairly large, be sure to chop them up.
- The recipe instructs you to use a 9-inch square cake pan, which uh, it turns out I don’t have (mine turned out to be 8 inches). I ended up using a 9-inch round pie plate and everything turned out fine.
- The recipe uses a weird batter-mixing technique where it instructs you to use a fork or a pastry cutter to blend cold butter into the dry ingredients. Not sure what the purpose of this really is — it might be due to the fact that the recipe is 68 years old, and they might not have had electric mixers back when it was written? Who knows. Either way, if I had to bake this recipe again, I would probably use a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment to mix the cake batter together — just let the butter get to room temperature before blending the butter into the dry ingredients. Whisk together the wet ingredients (the eggs and milk), before pouring into the dry ingredients and folding it all together by hand with a rubber spatula.
- This cake is best when served warm from the dish. I really recommend it with a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream.
Mixed Berry Cornmeal Cake with Ginger Crumble
For the Berry Topping
(makes around 6 cups, enough for one 9-inch cake)
- 6 cups (around 1 pound) fresh berries (see my baker’s note above)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
For the Ginger Crumb Topping
(makes enough for one 9-inch cake)
- 1/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup candied ginger, diced into small pieces
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into 1-inch cubes
For the Cornmeal Cake:
(makes one 9-inch cake)
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup finely-ground cornmeal
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 eggs
- 2/3 cup whole milk
For the Berry Topping
- In a medium bowl, toss together 6 cups fresh berries of your choice with 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 2 tablespoons vanilla extract. Set aside at room temperature while making the rest of the cake — the sugar and vanilla will enable the berries to macerate (that is, become soft and exude their juices).
For the Ginger Crumb Topping
- In a medium bowl, combine 1/3 cup firmly-packed brown sugar, 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup diced candied ginger, and 4 tablespoons unsalted, cubed butter.
- Blend 4 tablespoons unsalted butter into the dry ingredients, using either a pastry blender, a fork, or your fingertips until the mixture forms crumbs. Put the topping in the freezer while you mix the cake batter.
For the Cornmeal Cake
- Preheat the oven to 375 (F), and prepare your baking pan by spraying liberally with cooking spray.
- In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup fine cornmeal, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, and 1 teaspoon sea salt.
- Blend 6 tablespoons unsalted butter into the dry ingredients (from the 1st step), using either a pastry blender, a fork, or your fingertips until the mixture forms crumbs and the butter has been completely worked into the dry ingredients.
- In a separate bowl, whisk 2 eggs and 2/3 cup whole milk together.
- Drizzle the egg and milk mixture (from the 3rd step) on top of the flour and butter mixture (from the 1st and 2nd step), and, use a rubber spatula to fold into the batter. Continue folding only until the dry ingredients have been incorporated into the wet ingredients — the batter will look a little bit lumpy, but that's okay.
- Use a rubber spatula to transfer the cake batter into your prepared pan. Evenly distribute the macerated berries (from the 1st recipe) on top of the cake batter. Scatter the chilled ginger crumb topping (from the 2nd recipe) on top of the macerated berries.
- Transfer to the center of the oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the berries bubble and the cake is firm (ignore the places where the crumb has melted into the cake — it's hard to tell in those spots). Cool the cake on a wire rack for 30 minutes, before serving warm from the dish.