There’s a white mulberry tree a few blocks from my house. It’s in the yard in front of an apartment building and every year it drops tons of berries on the ground, but no one seems to pick any of them. I’ve been walking past it on my way to and from work every day for more than three years now. It took me while to think “Hey, those berries look edible. If no one else is using them, I should.” Then it took me a while longer to indentify the tree. (I may be foolish, but not so foolish to eat unknown berries from an unknown tree.) I finally got a positive ID on the tree last fall, just in time for the tree to stop growing berries for the year. So this spring when it started growing berries, I was determined to pick some.
Well, I picked some a few weeks ago. I didn’t want to walk around in someone else’s yard too much, so I just grabbed the ones close to the sidewalk. Even so, I got a bit more than half a cup. But then I realized that I didn’t know what to do with mulberries. They have a really light, sweet, honey-like flavor, like a cross between raspberries and honeysuckle. And like most fruit, the white ones are sweeter and more subtle than the standard variety.
Mulberry trees bear fruit pretty much continuously from June through September or so, so I knew I had plenty of time to experiment. The first batch (and the second) I just ate out of hand. Then my wife mentioned there are several mulberry trees growing in a city park near where she used to work. (Yay, legal foraging!) On the way home from the farmers market, we decided to stop by and pick some mulberries too. My daughter loved picking the berries, and actually managed to pick more than she ate, which was a bit surprising. The trees had branches low enough we could just pick from the ground (or from my shoulders in my daughter’s case.) Picking from just a few of the trees and getting just the branches easily reached from the ground we got more than a quart of berries. There were both black and white mulberry trees and some berries that looked like a hybrid of the two. We picked all three types.
I’ve seen mulberries at farmers markets before, but they grow wild through a good part of the midwest and are pretty common in parks and yards around Chicago. Why pay for them when you can get them free? If you live in Chicago, keep your eyes open next time you’re walking through your neighborhood; maybe you’ll find some unexpected treasure. But I might suggest coming back in an old shirt; black mulberries stain like a bitch. Our unplanned endeavor earned us three ruined shirts and several splotchy mulberry juice “bruises” where the berries fell out of the tree and hit our skin.
Adapted from Gourmet, June 2009
The bit of honey in the cake really complements the honeysuckle-ly flavor of the mulberries. I used a dark, full-flavored honey, since I wanted to use just a bit. (If you add much more honey, the cake will get more moist and dense.)
Also, I think it’s really cool how you just put the berries on top of the cake and they sink into the batter as it cooks.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 stick (4 Tbsp) unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 cup fresh mulberries, stems removed*
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan. (You can use a normal cake pan, but it comes out of a springform more easily.) Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.
Beat butter and 1/2 cup sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add honey and vanilla, then egg and beat well after each addition. At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour, and mixing until just combined.
Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Scatter berries evenly over top and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 Tbsp sugar.
Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan at least 10 minutes, then remove from the pan. (If you’re using a springform pan, you can let it cool all the way in the pan.)
* Mulberries have a short little skinny stem that’s hard to remove without mashing the fruit. It’s too tough to leave on and it doesn’t just pull out like a raspberry; you have to kinda pinch it off with your fingernails. It’s rather a pain in the ass to pinch off all those little stems. This cake is worth it the trouble.
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