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What to do with a berry that’s almost a nuisance

The Baltimore Urban Forager tackles ways to enjoy the wild mulberry in pies and jams.

1 BUF_mulberry pie resized

Presenting the “porch-hangout” mulberry pie with a vodka-laced crust.

Photo by: Alicia Puglionesi

Mulberries are everywhere; you might only recognize them as the squished, treacly-smelling goo that coats the sidewalk underneath a canopy of trees.

If you snag them before they hit the ground, however, mulberries are totally edible and extremely numerous – the trees fruit continuously from early June to late July.

They grow wild in yards (including mine), lots and wooded areas around the city and county. The nonstop hail of berries attracts songbirds, which is cool, but it also leaves a layer of berry goo all over everything, which is a motivation to keep harvesting them before they splatter.

There are two varieties of mulberry: red mulberries are native to North America, while white mulberries were imported from China in a failed attempt to cultivate silkworms, which feed on the fruit. Although red mulberries prefer shade sun and white prefer sun, the two types have hybridized extensively, to the point where it can be difficult to decide what kind of tree you’re looking at.

Mulberry trees shed a ton of berries (some red, some white) this time of year. (Photo by Alicia Puglionesi)

Mulberry trees shed a ton of berries – some red, some white – through late July. (Photo by Alicia Puglionesi)

Identifying a ripe red mulberry is pretty straightforward: they appear dark purple and come off the branch without any effort. White mulberries, however, remain white throughout their maturation, so the best strategy is to give them a tug. They will also feel slightly sticky.

Hybrid berries may range from pink to red in color when ripe. Also, the berries come from the tree with a little green stem attached. Good luck getting the stem off. It’s edible and doesn’t taste bad, so the reasonable thing to do is leave it on when preparing mulberries.

It’s important to pay some attention to ripeness because immature mulberries (as well as the leaves and twigs of the tree) have “mildly hallucinogenic” effects.

This would potentially be a lot of fun, except that they’re also a powerful laxative. Says “Wildman” Steve Brill, “the primary hallucination is that you’re so sick you’re going to die.” You would have to eat a lot of unripe mulberries to achieve this exalted state, so please be advised but not discouraged.

The tree in my backyard was long considered a nuisance, and some (my roommate) remain unpersuaded by the accumulating evidence that white mulberries are edible.

A Matter of Taste – and Look

Granted, they look kind of like slimy white grubs, and the flavor is somewhere on the spectrum between syrupy and insipid. There are ways of bringing out their inner beauty, however, and even if one attempt fails, there are plenty of mulberries for a second and third try.

The "larval appearance" of the white berries put a damper on the gustatory enjoyment of our columnist's mulberry cobbler. (Photo by Alicia Puglionesi)

The larval appearance of the white berries put a damper on the Forager's enjoyment of her cobbler. (Photo by Alicia Puglionesi)

My first effort was a modified blackberry cobbler recipe. There are a number of reasons that this didn’t work very well. Mulberries are insanely sweet, without much else in the way of flavor, so although you can use them in place of blackberries or raspberries in any recipe, you should cut the amount of sugar by at least half a cup and add at least two tablespoons of lemon juice.

A teaspoon or more of ginger also helps. A half-mulberry half-blackberry blend is another good way to add some zing to the whole situation. Had I done any of these things, I speculate that it would have been a pretty good cobbler, but let’s not waste time with counterfactuals.

Suffice it to say that the product of my half-assed cobbler efforts was not something that my roommate deemed edible, although others were able to choke down a slice with no ill effects.

Jamming With Mulberries

Embracing the whole insipid-sweetness theme led me to attempt mulberry jam. I more-or-less slavishly followed the instructions in the Sure-Jell box, using their recipe for black raspberry jam and adding a quarter cup of lemon juice and two teaspoons of ginger.

Another lesson learned from the cobbler incident was that the larval appearance of white mulberries presents an obstacle to gustatory enjoyment. To make the jam more aesthetically pleasing (and perhaps trick my roommate into trying it), I mixed in a few cups of red mulberries foraged along Wyman Park Drive.

To cut the sweetness of her mulberry jam, the Urban Forager added lemon juice and ginger. (Photo by Alicia Puglionesi)

To cut the sweetness of her mulberry jam, the Forager added lemon juice and ginger. (Photo by Alicia Puglionesi)

The red berries dyed the entire concoction a shade of purple that looked, in my humble opinion, like “real jam.” My roommate was not fooled, but I do highly recommend the jamming approach.

Soon the time came for a real, serious pie. My friend Beth was leaving town for the summer,and had one night left to hang out on the porch (and clear all the ice cream out of her freezer). Basically, a pie-mandatory occasion.

As it turned out, Beth has a history with mulberries: as a kid she made “smushed mulberry popsicles” with berries from a tree in her yard (recipe: combine mulberries with sugar, water, ice cube tray and toothpicks).

So what with the nostalgia-factor, the ice cream, and the contraband fireworks from Pennsylvania, it was a pretty nice send-off evening. With everyone else eating pie and not dying of wild berry poisoning, my roommate was prevailed upon to try some. Her assessment: “Well, the crust is really good.”

PORCH-HANGOUT MULBERRY PIE

Vodka Crust (recipe adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated vodka pie crust, available on the blogs with scientific explanation)

Mulberry pie à la mode. (Photo by Alicia Puglionesei)

Mulberry pie à la mode. (Photo by Alicia Puglionesi)

¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter or Earth Balance margarine, cut into ¼ inch cubes
½ cup vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
3 Tbsp vodka (any quality acceptable)
¼ cup cold water
2½ cups unbleached flour
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sugar

Pie Crust Prep

The key to pie crust is keeping everything cold, so chill your butter and shortening (you can even put the flour in the fridge) and try to handle everything as little as possible. Combine the dry ingredients and cut in the butter and shortening with a fork or pastry blender until it has a pebbly consistency. Then add vodka and water by the tablespoon, blending it until the dough starts to hold together. At this point I tend to use my hands to mold the dough into two balls. Plastic wrap it and refrigerate for an hour or more.

In the meantime, prepare the filling:

Filling

3 cups mulberries (blend white and red if you have both)
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup flour
2 tsp ground ginger
¼ cup lemon juice

Combine ingredients in a bowl. That’s pretty much it. You can smush the berries a little and let it chill in the fridge for a while if you want to. You should also have preheated your oven to 400° at this point.

When you’re ready to roll out the bottom crust, drop it on a floured surface and roll to about ¼-inch thick, then transfer to a greased pie tin. Add the filling, roll out the top crust and do something fancy (I went for a lattice top).

Cook at 400° for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350° and cook for an additional 45 minutes. Let cool for 30 minutes; serve with ice cream.

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  • Priscilla Chan

    Never saw a mulberry back in Beijing!  Here they are sweet and fun to pick but you are so right about the pesky stem.  Happy foraging….!

  • Mulberry

    I have a Red Mulberry in my yard and it has got to be the sweetest Mulberry around Hamilton. I have tried other trees and they are always tastless. I keep it trimmed as to not cause a huge problem but man are they sweet.

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