It’s a great time to bake up some blueberry treats; California bountiful blueberry season starts now and continues through June.

Here’s one of the blueberry bushes in my front yard. So, how will I use them?

Sweets need to be more than just sweet to interest my palate. There needs to be an interesting contrast in flavors, such as the addition of something a little tart and tangy but with a nice edge of sweetness.

Blueberries fill that role in baked goods in a delectable way, their sweet-tart juices bleeding into batters as they bake. Or, used raw as a alluring blue garnish, they offer crisp, sweet-tart distinction.

April is the start of the California blueberry crop, a short season that generally ends in June, when domestic blueberries are sourced from Oregon and Washington through early July. East Coast blueberries are picked June through August. That region is the source for wild blueberries that are very sweet and unlike cultivated varieties, are blue inside and out. Wild blueberries are delicious, but way more expensive.

The rest of the year most blueberries found in our marketplace are grown in Mexico, Central American, South America and New Zealand.

I like the idea of using California grown blueberries over the next couple of months, both because they are a more local source and because the price is often lower. Here are some tips for buying, storing and baking with fresh blueberries:

How to buy: Look for deep-blue berries with a silvery bloom on the exterior which is a blueberry’s natural protective coating. Lift the see-through container up and tilt it back and forth. If the berries move freely and there are no signs of mold, they’re fresh.

How to store:  Do NOT wash before storing. Remove bruised or moldy berries and refrigerate dry berries in the clamshell container they came in; the container has holes at the top and bottom to help air to circulate (which helps to prevent deterioration). Rinse with cold water before using.

To freeze: Place them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and place in freezer. When frozen, transfer to freezer zipper-style plastic bags (pushing out the air before sealing) or in freezer containers. If using frozen in baked goods, additional baking time is usually required.

Cooking with blueberries: When cooked, fresh blueberries sometimes change color. Berries often turn red when combined with acids such as lemon juice or vinegar. In batters containing large amounts of baking soda, blueberries may turn a greenish-blue. These color changes do not affect their flavor.

For pancakes or waffles: Blueberries should be added as soon as the batter is poured on the griddle or iron. If frozen blueberries are used, make sure they are heated through before serving.

Fresh blueberries and raspberries make tasty and colorful garnishes in this red velvet layer cake, both inside pressed into the filling and shown off  atop the frosting. The stunning contrast of red cake and fluffy white cream cheese frosting has made this treat a southern tradition for festive occasions. Mixing a touch of cocoa powder with the buttermilk and vinegar creates a reddish brown color, but it’s the red food coloring that earns this cake its name. For an even deeper red color, add an extra tablespoon of food coloring.

Red Velvet Cake with Blueberries and Raspberries
Yield: 14 servings
Cake:
2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour (sifted, then measured)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon red food coloring
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large eggs
Frosting:
2 (8-ounce packages) cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 (1/2-pint) containers fresh raspberries
3 (1/2 pint) containers fresh blueberries
1. For the cake:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with one and one-half –inch high sides. Sift flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk, food coloring, vinegar, and vanilla in small bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in large bowl until well blended. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Beat in dry ingredients in 4 additions alternately with buttermilk mixture in 3 additions, scraping down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Divide batter between prepared pans.
2. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 27 minutes. Cool in pans on racks 10 minutes. Cut around pan sides to loosen cakes. Turn cakes out onto racks; cool completely.
3. For the frosting: Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until smooth. Beat in vanilla. Add sugar and beat until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Place 1 cake layer, flat side up, on platter. Spread 1 cup frosting over. Arrange 1 container raspberries and 1/2 container blueberries atop frosting, pressing lightly to adhere. Top with second cake layer, flat side down. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Arrange remaining berries decoratively over top of cake.
Do Ahead: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover with cake dome and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.
Nutrition information (per serving): 330 calories, 48 percent of calories from fat, 17.6 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 40 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 310 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Source: “Bon Appétit Desserts” by Barbara Fairchild (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $40)

The idea for dipping warm muffin crowns in a little melted butter then in cinnamon-spiked sugar, comes from cooking expert Marion Cunningham in her 1987 “Breakfast Book” (Knopf, out of print). The process creates a beautiful cap on the muffins and I like the way the cinnamon tastes (I often double the amount of cinnamon from 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon).  Some bakers like to transfer batter to muffin tin using a large spoon sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. That system works fine. I like to use my mother’s old orange-handled ice cream scoop that measures out a little less than one-quarter cup of batter. Note that at the end of Step #3 you shouldn’t see large pockets of flour, but a small, occasional small bit of flour may remain; do NOT overmix.

Blueberry Muffins
Yield: 12
Butter for greasing muffin tin
2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled slightly
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) sour cream
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 to 8 ounces) fresh or frozen blueberries
Topping:
4 tablespoons butter (1/2 stick), melted
1/2 cup sugar mixed with 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a standard 12-cup muffin tin with butter and set aside.
2. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl until combined. Whisk egg in a second medium bowl until well-combined and light-colored, about 20 seconds. Add sugar to egg and whisk vigorously until thick and homogenous, about 30 seconds; add melted butter in 2 or 3 additions, whisking to combine after each addition. Add sour cream in 2 additions, whisking just to combine.
3. Add berries to dry ingredients and gently toss just to combine. Add the sour cream mixture and fold with rubber spatula until batter comes together and the berries are evenly distributed, 25 to 30 seconds. (Small spots of flour may remain and the batter will be thick. Do not overmix.)
4. Using a large spoon sprayed with nonstick cooking spray to prevent sticking (or an ice cream scoop that is a little smaller than 1/4 cup), divide the batter among the greased muffin cups. Bake until muffins are light golden brown and a toothpick or skewer inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through the baking time. Invert muffins onto wire cooling rack, stand upright and cool 5 minutes.
5. Place melted 1/4 cup butter in a shallow bowl. Place sugar-cinnamon sugar in a second shallow bowl. Dip warm top of a muffin in butter, then in sugar. Stand upright on cooling rack to finish cooling or serve warm. Repeat with remaining muffins. (I like to sprinkle a little extra cinnamon sugar on the muffins after they are placed back on the cooling rack after their “dipping”.)
Nutrition information (per serving):  350 calories, 49 percent of calories from fat,  21 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 38 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 408 mg sodium, 1.8 g fiber
Source: adapted from “Baking Illustrated” by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine (America’s Test Kitchen, $35)

cathythomascooks.com

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