Sunday, 16 February 2014

Seamus Heaney | Blackberry and Apple Torte

The simple joy of blackberry picking! The wild anticipation, foraging through the urban jungle, the excitement of the pick, and when you think you've picked enough, you spot one more, perhaps a little out of reach - and don't they invariably seem to be the juiciest of the lot? You tiptoe and stretch and brave the thorns until the hand reaches the treasured clot and you pluck the fruit with a triumphant smile.

Blackberries, it seems, have many different meanings in folk stories. They often symbolise sorrow and remorse or arrogance, as in the Greek myth of Bellerophon, a mortal, who tries to ride Pegasus to Olympus, falls and becomes blind when he lands in a thorny bush. This obviously functions as a cautionary tale. Seamus Heaney's poem, 'Blackberry-Picking', echoes some of the myth's associations but I think it presents a more physical although painfully compelling reality.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.

August Laux, Blackberries in Basket

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, 'Blackberry-Picking'

I met Seamus Heaney a long time ago when, my mind still full of Yeats and Ireland, I was on a summer visit to County Sligo for the annual Yeats Conference. Heaney was there reciting his poetry and lecturing and afterwards passing the evening stillness with a drink and a chat. He was as alluring a person as I found his poetry to be. What I think is most attractive about Heaney's work is the simplicity of tone in his poems and that element of earthiness that has him affirm the evanescence of all beautiful things but also the futility of human affairs. For Heaney, life is not something fixed and rigid; it leaks, it bleeds and, sometimes, it reveals itself unto us in all its rotting obscenity.

~ Blackberry and Apple Torte ~

We're a long way from summer and the allure of blackberry picking is but a memory but 'once off the bush', the fruit will only keep if you freeze it. This is a delicious combination of blackberries and apples in a supremely tender and moist cake. I changed the original recipe significantly, partly because I like to fragrance my cakes with essences and liqueurs and partly because, with recipes containing melted butter, I prefer to whisk the eggs and sugar to a billowing foam, which creates a much softer crumb and moister texture. I also increased the amount of blackberries, simply because you can never have enough blackberries. I was not disappointed.

(Inspired by Heather Homemade which was adapted from Martha Stewart Living)

granulated sugar, for coating pan
115 gr unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for pan
100 gr granulated sugar
2 large eggs
165 g + 1 tbsp (10 g) self-raising flour
30 g ground almonds
¼ tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
zest of 1 orange
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp Grand Marnier or Calvados
90 ml buttermilk
3 Pink Lady or Granny Smith or McIntosh apples peeled, cored, and sliced
1½ cup blackberries (frozen or fresh)

2 tbsp packed light-brown sugar
1/4 tsp mixed spice
2 tbsp butter, cut into pieces

Heat the oven to 185 C.

Butter an 8.5-inch (20cm) or a 9-inch (23 cm) spring form pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper, then dust the pan with granulated sugar. This will give the torte a nice crunchy exterior.

Prepare the cake batter: In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.

In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, ground almonds, baking powder, and salt.

With a hand-held mixer, whisk the eggs and sugar (about 5-8 minutes) until it has tripled in volume to form a tick, pale-coloured foam that leaves a trail for about 5 seconds when you lift the whisk. Beat in the orange zest, vanilla extract and Grand Marnier.

Using a rubber spatula, fold in the melted and cooled butter. To do this, you need to lighten the butter first so that it's not heavy, by mixing 1 tablespoon egg mixture into the butter. Then pour the lightened butter into one side of the bowl and fold gently into the egg mixture. Finally, pour in the buttermilk in a steady stream and fold in just until incorporated.

Next, fold in the flour mixture gently, so as not to deflate the egg mixture, in 2 stages until just moistened.

Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Arrange the apple slices over the batter in concentric circles or any other pattern and sprinkle with blackberries (if frozen, don't thaw). Gently press the fruit into the batter.

Prepare the topping: Combine 2 tablespoons brown sugar and the cinnamon, and sprinkle over the fruit. Dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter.

Bake in the middle of the oven until the top is dark gold, the apples are tender, and a cake tester inserted into centre comes out clean, about 55 minutes.

Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool slightly (about 10-15 min). Serve with blackberry yoghurt or cream, which you can make by gently heating a handful of blackberries with a teaspoon granulated sugar until they reach syrupy consistently, letting it cool and then folding into yoghurt or whipped cream.

My torte came out a bit thin because my pan was slightly over 9 inches. I'm thinking I should have made 1 1/2 recipe.

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