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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Berries and Cobblers: Blackberry Cobbler, Berry Cobbler

I think I can confidently say that you can divide the world up any number of ways, but for our purposes today, the world contains two kinds of people:
cake people and pie people.

Hallooo halloooo and hallloooo all you pie people: I am one of your Nation!

I just love pie. More than cake. Infinitely more than cake! A good pie is a study in contrasts...flaky, crispy crust against succulent, juicy filling...the saltiness of the crust against the sweetness of the filling.
Growing up in a very small Northern-ish Ontario town, we did not have a lot of access to fresh summer fruits. Strawberries were not widely grown in the area when I was a child, and while rhubarb was plentiful, it does not on its own make much of a pie. The baskets of ripe cherries and peaches that pour out of the Niagara Peninsula did not, in the 1960's, generally find their way to little Haliburton, and when they did, it was at great expense. So the standard pies in our houshold were apple, cherry (made with E.D. Smith tinned cherry pie filling), and raisin.

Y'all who are my age will remember raisin pie. A waste of good buttertart materials, I say.

It was not until I attended university in the Pacific West that I met up with blackberries. Walking along a Gulf Island road during a camping trip with the young man who would become my husband, I noticed fat, black berries hanging off prickly, dust covered bushes. "Are they edible?" I asked. He looked at me, incredulous. "Try one", he said, and I did. The rest was history!

It became our tradition to go blackberrying every year; here the blackberries begin to ripen in August, and thanks to the cool and uncertain coastal summers, some years the entire crop fails in the face of late summer rains. Last year's crop looked to be the best ever, but as it came to ripen, we had weeks of sustained rains. The berries molded on the vine.

It was very sad.

This year we are set to have perfect blackberry weather, and I will happily carry on our annual summer tradition of "all the fresh blackberry pie you can manage while the season lasts". But I will also make blackberry cobbler...I adore fruit cobblers and turned to them when I had toddlers and no time! It is much, much easier to manage a berry cobbler recipe than a berry and pie pastry recipe; you can bung it together before the toddlers lose interest in batter, bowls and spoons, after which they wander off to get into trouble!

My favourite cobbler recipe, which I think I found decades ago in a La Leche League cookbook, features a very unusual technique for producing a crispy, sugary crust. It is heavenly with blackberries, but I can personally vouch for the fresh peach version as well. For a little preview of heaven, ladle thickened cream over each serving. Oh my.

It all comes down to this: Berry Cobbler...

Crispy Batter Cake
350o, 45-60 minutes

 2 c. berries (my favourite is blackberries) and/or sliced fruit (sigh, Ontario peaches!)
Juice of half a lemon (add in a bit of zest, too!)

1 c. sugar
6 T. butter
1 c. milk
2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
½ t. salt

1 c. sugar
2 T. cornstarch
½ t. salt
1 1/2 c. boiling water

-preheat oven
-prepare a lasagna or large cake pan (8” x 13”) (butter, flour)
-spread cleaned fruit on bottom of pan
-sprinkle with lemon juice and zest

-in a large bowl, cream together sugar and butter
-whisk together in another bowl the flour, baking powder and salt
-add flour mixture to creamed mixture alternately with milk
-pour this batter over the fruit in pan

-for the topping, combine the sugar, cornstarch and salt, sprinkle all over top of batter
-immediately before baking, pour the boiling water over the topping and batter (really!!)

Batter cake is done when deep golden brown.

Serve with cream whipped just enough to be thick, so you can drizzle it from a spoon, all over your gorgeous cobbler! I prefer a Chantilly cream, ie. whipping cream with a bit of sugar and vanilla added.

Or serve with ice cream (but try that thick cream, it is fabulous!).

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ode to Half Square Triangles (HST's): how to make half square triangles

" If you can make Half Square Triangles, you have mastered 95% of quilt patterns."
Brenda Brayfield, quilting teacher extraordinaire

Simple blocks like Pinwheel and Card Trick,  sawtooth borders,  complex blocks like Crown of Thorns or Bear's Paw; all are built on that rock-solid chassis of quilting, the Half Square Triangle (HST).

HST's are single handedly responsible for the oft repeated sentiment amongst non-quilters that quilting is just too danged fussy and all quilters are joyless perfectionists. While it is true that HST blocks do not look their best when inaccurate, I  would like to rephrase the above criticism and say "there are few sights as pleasing as a quilt constructed with clean, sharp points; the effort required is well worth the heartache involved!".

The illustration below details the traditional method of HST construction, where two squares are layered together, sewn with a double seam on the diagonal and cut apart. This is generally the first method you will be taught in any Quilting 101 course:

I might as well come out and say it now...I hate this method! There are so many steps in which one can make tiny accuracy errors, and invariably, no matter how careful I am, I make enough to render any HST project an exercise in endless frustration. I like HST's, but I like them dead accurate with clean and sharp points; they just look so darn pretty that way!

Not only is the traditional method demanding in terms of accuracy, it is S--L--O--W. Slow as treacly molasses! Many quilting projects made with blocks constructed using HST units demand the production of scores of HST units, ditto for patterns using sawtooth borders, so it was with some determination that I went in search of a method of HST production that was not only easier to get right, but faster to get finished.

Mercifully, there are many other ways to make HST's!

The first method I turned to was the "no waste" method. I was not particularly motivated by low or no waste...after having to discard several blocks worth of work and materials thanks to accuracy issues, I realized that the lowest waste is generated by the most reliable route to accuracy! Below is a quick illustration of the classic no waste method:

You simply put two squares right sides together, sew around the edges with an accurate 1/4" seam, and cut the sewn shape apart on the diagonals. Voilà, you now have four Half Square Triangle units! The major drawback here is that you are left with a lot of exposed bias edges. Not too big a problem if, like me, you wash, dry and starch your raw goods. A good starching gets you through a lot of bias issues! The major advantage of this method is that you get four HST's at a time (note: 4 HST's = 1 pinwheel). Faster, but still not fast enough.

There are plenty of HST rulers out there...essentially you sew strips of fabric right sides together, and cut them into triangles, which unfold along the sewn line into half square triangles. I tried a few of these clever rulers, but they were not much more accurate than the traditional method, and a bit tricky to cut out with the rotary cutter. And while faster than the traditional method, the ruler method was still too slow for my purposes:

**For all of the above methods, I found it was best to admit that I was going to have accuracy problems, and to make the HST's slightly over size, then cut them down to the required size and accuracy:

Finally, I was pointed toward Half Square Triangle papers. You can get these through a variety of sources...there are free downloads on the web and there are commercial products, ie. Thangles. Both are great methods, very quick and very, very accurate!

But in the end, my own addiction to HST projects, particularly the construction of pinwheel blocks, of which I am inordinately fond, led me to the Triangulations CD  . At last I could easily print off triangle paper (I use copy paper quite successfully) of any required size, and end up with loads of HST units sewn with maximum efficiency and truly impressive accuracy.

This was the answer I had been searching for! My approach now is to sew up sheets of the Triangulations sheets in whatever size is required, pop them into a work bag with a pair of scissors, and then when I need to keep my hands busy ie. watching tv, on the bus etc., I take out a sheet, cut along the lines, remove the paper from the HST's, and put them aside for pressing.

When assembling HST projects, I like to keep my seam lines aligned, and work carefully to ensure my points come out neat and sharp. To do this, I press seams open, and pin carefully with fine pins on either side of where seams join. This prevents the seams from shifting apart during sewing. And I am very careful to sew with a very accurate 1/4" seam. You can also watch your seam lines as you sew the points together to make sure you sew right across, but not above or below, the point itself. And I am not afraid to rip out when a point is either buried or left floating.

(the one exception to this approach is when I am making deliberately wonky, folk art type blocks or units, à la the Collaborative/Liberated Quilting method I learned from Freddie Moran and Gwen Marston. That method demands you pay attention to balance and design rather than perfect accuracy)

Here is a shot of one of my "made it by accident" blocks, one I ended up liking very much and used in a nice little lap quilt I have under construction. HST's look fabulous in black and white prints...give it a try in your next project!