Family Togetherness Blackberry Buttermilk Cake

Last week there was a piece in the Times that sent shivers up my spine and made my heart pound a little too quickly.  No, it wasn’t about the various mad men somehow allowed to carry guns in our country—I react with rage and indignation to those news items.  It was about the tradition of families who make the annual pilgrimage to the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi and stay in their circa 1900’s ancestral cottages.  There’s nothing wrong with that idea, in fact it seems rather nice and as we know, I’m all for spending time with family.  The cottages are two-stories and about 1000 square feet with a kitchen, common room and open porch on the first floor and a group bedroom on the second. OK, sounds cute.  But wait.  Here’s what almost caused my panic attack.  That group bedroom? 

Yeah, it sleeps 41 people, aged 90 to 17 months in double bunk beds stacked three high.


Let’s put fire hazard to one side and think about what this really means.  We’re not talking about individual cots set up by the Red Cross in a school gym after a home wrecking flood.  Frankly, that seems like the Four Seasons compared to this nightmare.  What if you’re in the top bunk and have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Oh, and by “the” bathroom I mean the one or maybe two.  Do the math and it adds up to “yuck.”  I’d have to wear a Purell suit to get through an overnight stay. 

Years ago I used to worry about meeting a guy who might ask me to go to St. Bart’s.  What would I do?  I don’t have St. Bart’s clothes!  Since I never met him, and probably never will, I now have a new fear—what will I do if I wind up married to a man whose family has a cabin at the fair?!

I suppose that’s what a pre-nup is for.  Just like my grandmother sent my mother to sleep-away camp with a letter stating, “My daughter does not have to eat spinach,” I’d have my lawyer say, “My client does not have to share one bathroom with 40 other people.”

In many ways I wish I were the kind of person who thinks communal living, strike that, communal anything, is fun.  But I’m not.  And it’s no secret.  Speaking of sleep-away camp, when my sister and I were kids we went to the same one, only she loved it and I did not.  She was all about the group dynamic and togetherness.  In addition to swimming in a cold lake in the rain and trying unsuccessfully to catch a softball, I hated sharing two bathrooms with 9 other girls and two counselors. 

But the perfect thing is that every year my sister and her family return to the idyll of Maine where they rent a cabin on the water.  There they go kayaking, hike, swim, pick berries and do arts and crafts on rainy days.  To fellow overnight campers, does this activity roster sound familiar?  Not a coincidence, I’m sure. 

But since every summer I have to do without Niece One and Niece Two for longer than I’d like, people ask me if I plan on visiting them.  (This year a trip north isn’t an option because of my new job, but in summers past I was free as a bird.)  Yet my answer was always, “Nope.” 

Part of the reason is that I think it’s nice for my sister and brother-in-law to have some time with just their immediate family.  But then there is the other part; the there’s-only-one-bathroom part.  As I said, my “stuff” is no secret and that became super clear when last summer in Maine Niece One shook her head laughing and said to her mother about her aunt, “I don’t think she’d like it here.”

On the one hand I loved it that she knows me so well.  On the other, hey, wait a minute!  I can be a good sport! But maybe not so much.  Even though I know I’m missing out on a lot.  Look how pretty it is!  And I also didn’t get to witness Niece One’s maiden solo kayak voyage, a milestone that cannot be recreated in the chlorinated waters of my parents’ pool where I will next see her. 

Luckily my sister emails lots of photos allowing me to get a two-dimensional sense of the time they are having.  Among the pix of adorableness was this one of some of the roadside local bounty.  And by roadside I don’t mean a farm stand.  I mean grab a bucket and start picking along the side of the dirt road.  Very Blueberries for Sal except they’re blackberries. 
After seeing that picture I knew the next thing I baked would have to include that bursting, pebbled indigo fruit.  My mother was having people to dinner last weekend and at my request, picked up a few cartons of blackberries.  Granted, she often buys fruit at a place called Meat Farms (don’t ask) but still, they were really ripe and juicy and since I didn’t personally pluck the plastic box off the shelf of a store chilly enough to keep so many cuts of beef cold, I was able to fool myself into thinking they were as fresh as my sister’s family-picked bounty.
I was in the midst of making this buttermilk blackberry cake, measuring my flour and creaming my butter in the Kitchen Aid Professional when my sister shot me this photo of a crumble she’d thrown together by hand in her cabin’s kitchen.  
And really, could the metaphor be more obvious?  Her easy, breezy dessert resulted in this kind of reaction.  
Plus, how beautiful is it?  Not just the crumble but the setting!
And here is my tidy cake in the process of being divided into perfectly equal wedges, topped with perfectly whipped cream and garnished with an even number of perfect berries.
In all fairness to me (and August’s Food and Wine where I found the recipe), it was light and fruity, tart and sweet with a wonderful fluffy crumb.  A big hit for sure.  But for some reason I think my little sister had more fun making her dessert.

It may be time to revisit my one bathroom hesitation.  Sharing with four others is a piece of cake compared to 40.  Right?
Family Togetherness Blackberry Buttermilk Cake
from Food and Wine, August 2012
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1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups blackberries, plus more for serving
Sweetened whipped cream, for serving


Preheat the oven to 400°. Butter a 9-inch-round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper.
In a small bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl, using a mixer, beat the butter with the 2/3 cup of sugar at medium-high speed until fluffy, 3 minutes. Beat in the egg and vanilla. 

At low speed, beat in the buttermilk and dry ingredients in 3 alternating batches, ending with the dry ingredients; do not over-beat. Gently fold the batter just until blended, then scrape into the pan and smooth the top.

Scatter the 1 1/4 cups of blackberries over the batter; lightly press them in. Sprinkle the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar over the cake. 
Bake for about 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
Transfer the cake to a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Turn out the cake and remove the paper. 
Turn the cake right side up and let cool completely. Serve with whipped cream and more blackberries.
Yield: 8 servings