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Best Berry: the Marion Kind

September 03, 1997|ROSE LEVY BERANBAUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Beranbaum is the author of "The Cake Bible" (William Morrow, 1988)

This year I discovered the miracle of all berries, the marionberry. I know this berry treasure is not new to others, but for me the discovery was a cooking revelation.

The marionberry, a hybrid from Marion County, Ore., is a happy marriage of the red raspberry and the blackberry, producing a velvety, intensely flavorful berry that resembles the long variety of blackberry in shape, with a reddish-purple hue.

The marionberry is far less bitter than the raspberry and far less seedy than the blackberry, with a perfect balance of sweet and tart flavor reminiscent of an earthy Cabernet.

The most remarkably distinctive characteristic of the marionberry is that when it is frozen and defrosted, it maintains its texture, softening only very slightly as it releases some of its purple juices. This makes it possible to have a taste of the joy of fresh summer berries all year round.

Cooked berries in general become jam-like and seedy in texture and lose much of their sweetness, necessitating as much as six times more sugar than uncooked berries. Stacey Pierce, the pastry chef at Union Square Cafe in New York City, has come up with a lovely solution: She cooks some of the marionberries and, when they're cool, folds in some of the defrosted uncooked berries. This is possible because they hold their shape so well.

Joe Scalice at March, also in New York, cleverly places a partly frozen marionberry in Kir Royal (a classic aperitif of Champagne and currant liqueur). Not only does it serve as a beautiful garnish, harmonious in flavor with the Kir, it also helps keep the Champagne cold and is delicious to eat when the cocktail is gone.

My favorite way to eat marionberries is uncooked and lightly sugared in a shortcake, with either a biscuit or sponge cake base and a cloud of lightly sweetened whipped cream. Sponge cake is ideal for absorbing the berry juices, which moisten the cake without rendering it soggy as they would regular layer cake or biscuits. Here's my recipe for French Sponge Cake, also known as genoise. The browned butter gives it an especially aromatic and rich flavor.


6 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing pan

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup sifted cake flour or 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sifted bleached flour, plus extra for preparing pan

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch, lightly spooned into cup

Melt butter over medium heat in heavy saucepan partly covered to prevent splattering. When butter looks clear, uncover and cook, watching carefully, until solids drop and begin to brown deeply. Pour immediately through fine strainer or strainer lined with cheesecloth. There should be 1/4 cup melted butter. Place in medium bowl in warm area. When no longer hot, add vanilla and keep warm.

Heat eggs and sugar in large mixer bowl set over pan of simmering water until just lukewarm, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. (Note: Eggs may also be heated by placing them still in shells in large mixing bowl in oven with pilot light at least 3 hours or overnight.) Remove mixing bowl from heat. Beat eggs and sugar with whisk beater on high speed until triple in volume and very thick, about 5 minutes. (Note: Hand beater may be used, but it will be necessary to beat at least 10 minutes. Mixture must be very thick.)

Sift together flour and cornstarch. Warm browned butter until almost hot to touch. Remove 1 scant cup egg mixture and thoroughly whisk into browned butter mixture.

Sift half flour mixture into remaining egg mixture and fold in gently but rapidly with large balloon whisk, slotted skimmer or rubber spatula until almost all flour has disappeared. Repeat with remaining flour mixture. Fold in butter mixture until just incorporated.

Pour immediately into 9-inch cake pan that has been greased, bottom lined with parchment, then greased again and floured. Bake at 350 degrees until cake is golden brown and starts to shrink slightly from sides of pan, 25 to 35 minutes. (Note: Do not open oven door before minimum cooking time has elapsed or cake could fall. Test toward end of baking time by opening door slightly; if at quick glance it does not appear done, close door at once and check again in 5 minutes.

Loosen sides of cake with small metal spatula and turn onto lightly greased rack. Turn over and cool on rack. When cool, use as directed or wrap airtight in plastic wrap until ready to use. (Note: Cake can be frozen up to 3 months.)

8 servings. Each serving:

221 calories; 120 mg sodium; 130 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.03 gram fiber.


If you don't want to make the French Sponge Cake, buy a 9-inch sponge cake at the grocery store or bakery. Fresh marionberries, strawberries, raspberries or blackberries may be substituted for the frozen marionberries.

1 pound (4 cups) fresh or frozen marionberries

2 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


2 tablespoons black raspberry liqueur, optional

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