The most abundant huckleberry harvest in years is in full swing. Whether you have a special picking spot or buy your berries at area farmers markets, now is the time to stock up.
The first berries of the season showed up at farmers markets at the end of June, about two weeks earlier than usual. Bushes of these tart and tangy jewels of the forest only grow wild in our mountains, and they won’t grow optimally below 3,500 feet. It takes up to 15 years for a huckleberry bush to mature.
The first thing I bake during huckleberry season is a pie. Nothing heralds huckleberry’s abundance better. It takes a long time to pick the pile of berries the pie needs (five cups, a bit more than 1 1/2 pounds). And if you buy the berries, you’ll pay a premium price because they’ve been cleaned of all debris. Huckleberries also make sensational jams, muffins, scones, pancakes, and sauces for wild game and birds.
My new way to welcome the huckleberry harvest into my home is to bake huckleberry bars, a butter pastry crust filled with huckleberries and covered with a buttery crumb topping. It’s a European concept that works well with just about any berry but especially huckleberries.
The bars make a large yield and you can offer them as a snack to eat out of hand or you can cut the pastry into larger portions and serve them on plates with a fork. One big advantage of the bars is that they stay fresh for a few days. A sprinkling of ground almonds cushions the berries and guarantees crispness. One more thing: Beaten egg whites enrobe the berries before they’re spread onto the pastry. The egg white proteins provide a delicate shell that keeps the fruit tender during baking.
Don’t forget to freeze berries now to use during the winter months. I spread berries in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with waxed paper and freeze them solid. Transfer the frozen berries (which will remain single) to a heavy-duty zip-top bag and store in the freezer. You can measure out what you need for a recipe and store the rest.
The dough, easily made in a food processor, may be rolled out right away and used to line a standard jelly-roll pan. For the filling, 5 cups of huckleberries are folded together with 2 egg whites beaten stiff and spread in a single layer in the unbaked pastry sprinkled with ground almonds.
The streusel topping of flour, sugar, and butter, processed to fine crumbs, is sprinkled over the blueberries and the pastry is baked for 35 to 40 minutes at 400 degrees. And that’s all there is to it.
1/2 cup blanched or unblanched whole, sliced or slivered almonds
2 2/3 cups (13 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
8 ounces unsalted butter, refrigerator temperature
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 large lime or lemon
2 large egg yolks (reserve whites for filling)
Ice water, as needed
2 large egg whites
5 cups huckleberries, fresh or frozen
1 cup (5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, refrigerator temperature
Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter or coat with cooking spray a 15 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 1-inch jelly-roll pan.
To measure flour for this recipe, dip dry measuring cups into the flour container, fill to overflowing, and level with a metal spatula. Better yet, weigh the flour.
For the almonds, put the nuts into the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process about 30 seconds or until the nuts are finely ground. Don’t over-process of the nuts will turn pasty. Set aside.
For the crust, cut the cold butter into tablespoon-size pieces. Put the metal blade in the work bowl of a food processor and add the flour, butter, salt, sugar, and zest. Process about 10 seconds until the dry ingredients are the texture of coarse meal. Put the egg yolks into a 1-cup glass measure with pouring spout and combine them with a fork. Add ice water to bring the volume to the 1/2-cup line and mix with the fork. Start the food processor and add the liquid through the feed tube in a steady stream, taking about 10 seconds. Stop the machine. Scrape the work bowl, and continue processing until the dough gathers into 2 or more large lumps, about 20 seconds. Dump the dough onto your work surface and press the lumps together. (Dough may be used immediately or wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 2 days).
Roll the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle measuring about 19- x 14-inches. Don’t be concerned about rough edges; they’ll be trimmed away later. Set your rolling pin on a short end of the dough and carefully roll the dough around the rolling pin. Unroll the pastry so that it rests on the rim of the jelly-roll pan, covering the pan completely. Fit the dough loosely in the prepared pan, making sure it reaches snugly into all corners without stretching. Trim off excess dough with a small sharp knife. (Use scraps to make cookies, if you wish).
For the filling, sprinkle the almonds evenly over the bottom of the crust. In a small bowl, whip the whites until they hold stiff peaks but look moist. Put the huckleberries into a medium bowl. Add the beaten whites and fold them with the huckleberries using a large rubber spatula. Spread the berries evenly over the almonds. There will be a thin layer of fruit, about the depth of 1 huckleberry.
For the streusel, put the flour, sugar, and salt into the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Cut the cold butter into tablespoon-size pieces and add them to the work bowl. Process 20 to 30 seconds until the streusel is the consistency of fine crumbs. Spread evenly over the huckleberries without packing down.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the edges of the crust are well browned and the topping is golden. Cool completely on a wire rack before cutting into bars.
Makes about 40 bars or 20 larger servings.
Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America” and Montana public radio co-host of “The Food Guys,” broadcast on KUFM Sunday mornings. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Please visit his blog, www.thebakingwizard.com.