Berry Crumble Bars (Preserving the best of summer)

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I have an old photo of me and my sister taken at the Jersey shore. We are two small children in the surf, holding onto something that looks like a tow rope at a ski slope, and the waves are swirling around our calves. We are lightly browned with shockingly blonde hair, and we are both squinting into the sun with huge smiles of delight.

I don’t remember the particular day that photo was taken, but I do recall other particulars of those summers. I remember my mom driving the three of us to the beach, with my sister and me sweating in the sweltering and sticky back seat of the Karmann Ghia, even with the windows rolled all the way down. I remember also how delicious a picnic tasted at the shore; peanut butter and jelly – despite the inevitable addition of sand – was so sweet and satisfying, potato chips seemed to be made deliciously saltier by the sea air, and fruit always seemed juicer when eaten on the beach blanket within the sound of the crashing waves. I remember reading on the beach, and then when I got too hot, bouncing around in the waves for hours, so that when I finally lay in my bed later that night, my body still seemed to sway with the power of the surf.

I like to believe that entire summers were made up of these moments, but I know that there were also days of idle boredom while we waited for my mom to come home from work. I remember my sister and me droning into the large floor fan at my grandparents’ house, marvelling at how the sound of our voices rose and fell with the passing of the huge blades. I remember pressing my nose against their screen door, and my grandfather warning us we would get polio that way. I remember him spraying us with the garden hose in the backyard, and me wishing we could live in a house with a swimming pool. I remember being so hot that I got heat rash, and I was convinced that finally (hooray!) I had contracted measles and would be pampered and fed ice cream.

Memory is a fickle thing. All my childhood summers seem to consist of heat and more heat. Yet I know that can’t be true. Weather is as fickle as memory – a look outside my window right now, with the rain pelting down, confirms this. But some things I know to be true forever: the taste of a perfectly ripe pear, with its raspy skin and its sweet juice dripping down my chin; the watery sweetness of a watermelon and the pleasantly slippery seeds that we could spit across the lawn; the candy-like sweetness and colour of fresh cherries which, even as a child, I knew were so much better than the maraschino cherries we got in our Shirley Temples.

When I am longing for summer, it is these things I am longing for, and with them the recollection of a sunny time, real or imagined.

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Berry Crumble Bars

for a 23cm x 28cm (9″x11″) pan

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Even in our fickle Devon summer, we get delicious juicy berries. My children will form their own memories of what summer is, and I suspect their recollections will include getting to the ripe strawberries before the dog does, picking the gooseberries at various stages of ripeness (the oldest likes them as unripe and tart as can be), and searching for wild bilberries on the moor.

We tend to eat the berries straight – no cream, sugar or any kind of fanfare – but sometimes there are just a few too many berries to get through. I’ve been making little batches of jam, and never one to leave well enough alone, I’ve been experimenting with making the jam into a cookie, hence these crumble bars.

So far, I’ve made gooseberry, gooseberry-strawberry, and strawberry-rhubarb. Each time, I tweaked the recipe a little so that I could get a good sturdy base for the fruit and the crumble topping, and I think the ratio is perfect now. I also tried to simplify the recipe; the first one I came up with had a pâte sucrée base and a crumble topping, but that’s really too much work, especially for this time of year.

This recipe is very flexible, but for best results, it helps to have a fruit filling that isn’t too watery, which is why using a jam – or a mix of jam and fresh fruit – is a good idea. Use whatever fruit you like best, and then let the memories begin to accrue.

  • 180g (2 cups) oats (use gluten-free oats for GF version)
  • 250g (2 cups) whole wheat flour (or ground oats, or GF flour)
  • 200g (1.25 cups) brown sugar
  • .75 tsp salt
  • 190g (6.75 oz) unsalted butter, cold, cut into cubes
  • zest of one lemon
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 150-200g (2/3-1 cup) fresh jam (see how to make it below)
  • 250g (1/2 lb) fresh fruit such as rhubarb, strawberries, nectarines, peaches, plums (if large, cut into pieces about the size of a blueberry; in fact you could use blueberries!)
  • 1 Tb cornstarch
  • 45g (1/4 cup) sugar
  • 45ml (1/4 cup) lemon juice

Prepare your pan by greasing it lightly and lining it with parchment paper.

Put the oats, flour, brown sugar, salt, butter and lemon zest into the food processor and pulse until it resembles coarse crumbs. Take approximately one-third of this out of the food processor and set aside. To the remaining two-thirds, add the egg yolks and vanilla and process until a dough forms. Scatter the dough evenly in the prepared pan and press it down to form a crust. Bake at 190C (375F) for 7-10 minutes, or until it is lightly browned.

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Preparing the base.

Meanwhile, mix together the fresh fruit, cornstarch, sugar and lemon juice. Top the still-hot crust with the jam and then put the fresh fruit mix on top of that. Make sure you get even coverage of all the fruit so that each bite is delicious!

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Scatter the remaining crumble mix over the fruit, and bake at 170C (350F) for 20-30 minutes, or until the topping is browned and the sides are bubbling.

SAM_1707Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan. (Note: if you try to cut these before they are adequately cooled, they will crumble apart, and you may have to eat them as a topping for yogurt or ice cream. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

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To make the strawberry jam:

  • 400g (14 oz) strawberries
  • 350g (1.75 cups) sugar
  • 1 TB lemon juice

SAM_1552Put all ingredients into a pot over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the sugar has melted, then let the mixture come to a boil. Boil steadily until the liquid has thickened to jam consistency. You can test this in a few ways:

1. When you lift the spoon from the pot, the liquid will not pour off the spoon in one steady stream but will drip off the spoon in a couple of thick drops, as in the picture below.

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2. If you put a drop or two of the jam on a cold plate, when you hold the plate vertically, the liquid will swell at the bottom, rather than run down the plate.

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Three separate tests on this plate. The top one shows what to look for.

3. The temperature will reach 105C (220F). Long before it does that, it will rise up somewhat alarmingly in the pot, but then it settles down a bit.

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You can use the jam straightaway in this recipe, or you can keep it refrigerated for up to a week and use it to make sandwiches for the beach… If you plan on keeping the jam for more than a week, you should sterilise the jars following traditional sterilising methods.

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