This is the third week of our huckleberry season, and I’ve already made two dozen jars of jam, two pies and a fabulous crumb cake. What’s next? Let’s see: huckleberry scones, hand pies, ice cream and maybe a soufflé or two?
But I digress. I've gone head-over-heels wild about huckleberries ever since we learned about them when we moved to Missoula 47 years ago. Cookbooks weren’t much help in our quest to learn everything we could about these jewels of the forest, but neighbors were. They told us where to pick them and suggested we try all sorts of recipes.
Montana huckleberries are truly special. They have an exceptionally tangy flavor that is hard to describe to people who haven’t tasted them. But the first time I bit into one, I got the message loud and clear. It was as if I had witnessed a performance by a newcomer I knew instantly would become a great star. Well, huckleberries are the indisputable stars of the berry world, in my honest opinion.
In addition to desserts, huckleberries are excellent in sauces to serve with game, chicken, lamb and bison. The berry’s wildness complements that of game beautifully. And at breakfast, a few huckleberries sprinkled over plain yogurt will make your mouth sing.
For the recipe today, I chose huckleberry crumb cake, my variation of a classic Maida Heatter recipe, blueberry crumb cake. It’s a coffee cake that’s perfect to have on hand to serve with coffee, tea or chai. It keeps really well for a few days, well-covered, at room temperature. The last one I made for my wife and me lasted, miraculously, for four days before I scooped up the last remaining crumbs and popped them into my mouth.
Huckleberry crumb cake
You can use fresh or frozen berries. If frozen solid, thaw the berries just until they begin to thaw, about 30 minutes or so, and are not rock-hard. If too cold, the berries will harden the batter, and it will become difficult to fold the berries in without breaking them.
Makes 9 to 12 portions.
2 cups huckleberries, preferably fresh
⅓ cup sifted all-purpose flour (2 ⅔ ounces)
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 oz. (½ stick; 4 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (8 ounces)
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon table salt
2 oz. (½ stick; 4 tablespoons) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup sugar
1 large egg
½ cup milk (any fat percentage)
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
½ cup pecans, cut medium fine
Confectioners’ sugar (optional)
1. Pick over the berries to remove any twigs and leaves. Rinse the berries under cool running water and pat them dry on paper towels. Put the berries into a medium-large bowl.
2. Adjust an oven rack to the lower third shelf and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan and dust it well with fine, dry unseasoned breadcrumbs. Knock out excess crumbs.
3. For the topping, whisk together the flour, sugar and cinnamon. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender to make coarse crumbs. Refrigerate.
4. For the cake, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Remove about 1 ½ tablespoons of the dry ingredients and add to the huckleberries. Toss gently with your fingers to coat the berries.
5. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter briefly until soft and creamy. On medium speed, add the vanilla and sugar and beat for 1 minute. Add the egg and beat for 1 minute more. Scrape the bowl and beater. On lowest speed, alternately add the remaining whisked dry ingredients in three additions and the milk in two additions, beating only until smooth. Scrape the bowl between additions.
6. Remove the mixer bowl and stir in the lemon zest. The batter will be stiff. Scrape the batter onto the huckleberries and fold together carefully with a rubber spatula until just mixed.
7. Turn the batter into the prepared baking pan and spread it level. Sprinkle the pecans evenly over the top, and then sprinkle the chilled topping over the nuts, crumbling it between your fingers. I find it best to start sprinkling around the edges and finishing in the center of the cake.
8. Bake for 50 minutes or until the top is well browned. Cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Loosen the cake from the pan sides with a table knife. To keep the crumb topping in place, cover the cake with a piece of foil large enough to fold down around the four sides of the pan. Set a cake rack onto the foil and invert the two. Lift off the baking pan, cover the cake with another rack, and invert again. Remove the foil.
9. You can serve the cake warm or at room temperature. If you want, dust the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar, but I don’t think it’s really isn’t necessary. Keep leftovers covered, at room temperature. The cake stays fresh for 3 or 4 days.