One of my first paying gigs was picking blackberries for the Hammer family fruit stand in Stockton, Calif. It was located on a big patch of dirt at the intersection of Eight Mile Rd. and Interstate 5, with nothing but more dirt and farmland surrounding it, as far as the eye could see. Mrs. Hammer would pay me $5 per flat of blackberries, all through the summer, until late in the season when the berries would become too mushy and soft to be sellable. In eighth grade, the $15 or so that I brought home each week was a king's ransom.
Stockton is in the heart of California's Central Valley, and the rural part of Stockton I lived in, on the San Joaquin River Delta, is criss-crossed with tributaries and sloughs and inland shipping channels. These waterways create de facto borders around some of the most rich and abundant farmlands in America. Eons of flooding and ebbing waters have created a dense, black, magical peat dirt that's perfect for the area's cherry and nut orchards and corn and tomatoes. Asparagus grew wild near our home, and every spring we'd set out with cloth sacks and knives to hack it out of the ground, take it home, rinse it off, parboil and drown it with butter and lemon.
The banks of the San Joaquin, where my family lived for years on a houseboat, are thick with patches of blackberry vines. They hang down low over the water, thick, impenetrable walls of thorns that are best approached by boat. I would cruise the banks in a rusty, blue dinghy equipped with a small outboard engine, nudging the bow into the brambles and picking the fat, juicy berries and collecting many cuts and scrapes for my troubles. Later in the season, when the outermost berries on my route had all been picked, I'd have to resort to throwing plywood or sometimes a strip of carpet on top of the vines and carefully crawling ashore on my knees and elbows to get at any unpicked berries.
I never let my mom have enough of my hard-earned berries to make dessert, but occasionally she'd pick some on her own and make a cobbler or dump them on top of vanilla ice cream.
All these years later, the Hammer family farm stand is gone and in its place is something called Park West Place, one of those huge, ultra-modern outdoor malls with a Target, Sleep Train and Bed Bath & Beyond. I couldn't help but snap a pic the last time I drove through Stockton.
Funny, but nowadays I hardly ever have blackberries. At the supermarket, they're often way too expensive for what you get, and God only knows how far away the nearest patch of wild blackberries is.
But this weekend, the little six-ounce clamshells of berries were on sale, two for five dollars. On a whim, I grabbed a couple of containers of blackberries, and a couple of containers of raspberries, which were also on sale.
When I got home, I decided I wanted to make bar cookies, and found a recipe for Blackberry Crumb Bars on marthastewart.com that had intrigued me months ago, when it had appeared in the magazine, but blackberries at the time were about three times more expensive, so I mentally filed it away for later in the summer.
The reality is that they are much cakier and gooier than this photo would have us believe. Still incredibly tasty, and with personality plus... but more like a cobbler or a betty meant to be served in slices or wedges, and mmmmm maybe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
I made two batches, one with the blackberries and one with the raspberries, but really, any berry or summery fruit could stand in here and be just as delicious.
Blackberry Crumb Bars
Makes 16 squares
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter melted, and 1/2 cup (1 stick), room temperature, plus more for pan
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for pan
- 1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup confectioners' sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 2 containers (5 ounces each) blackberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking
pan. Line bottom with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on two sides;
butter and flour paper, tapping out excess.
Make topping: In a medium bowl, whisk together melted butter,
brown sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; add 1 cup flour, and mix with a
fork until large moist crumbs form. Refrigerate topping until ready to
In a medium bowl, whisk together remaining 3/4 cup flour,
baking powder, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt; set aside. In a large
bowl, using an electric mixer, beat room-temperature butter,
confectioners' sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy; add eggs, one
at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low; mix in
flour mixture. Spread batter evenly in pan; sprinkle with blackberries,
then chilled topping.
Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in center comes
out with moist crumbs attached, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool completely in
pan. Using paper overhang, lift cake onto a work surface; cut into 16
Make the crumb topping. I fluffed it all together with a fork. Could also be done in a food processor. Pop it in the fridge after you get it mixed. That'll keep it crumbly instead of melty when you put the whole thing in the oven.
Two six-ounce containers of berries go into each batch. The little raspberries look like singing mouths to me. Also, I cannot possibly look at blackberries without seeing and feeling thorns, as well.
The crumb topping goes over the berries.
Final verdict: Super easy and tastes like summer. Store the finished product in the fridge, to firm them up for cutting. I served these like bar cookies, but it's a crumble. Do yourself a favor, scoop a big spoonful into a bowl and serve with vanilla ice cream. I will definitely make this again.