When my husband and I arrived in Oregon, we went blueberry picking at a farm just outside of town. I had picked blueberries in my childhood, but in Michigan blueberries grow in bogs on small bushes, not on hills in hedges that are higher than my head, so I dressed in waterproof boots and slathered on the mosquito repellent, not bothering to bring a hat.
A few hours later, he had wandered off with his bucket to quaff fresh blueberry juice at the home base, and I was sunburnt and lost in the foliage. Finally, I made my way back, branches in my hair, a huge pail of blueberries. We ate them for weeks, often by the handful, then in crumbles and pies, then in jams and syrups, and still our freezer held as many as it could store. Oregon’s Willamette Valley – can you see why people call this place paradise?
The nice thing about frozen blueberries is that you can bring back a bit of summer to the dead of winter. I’m cleaning out my freezer right now, and I have just enough to make a new batch of my Summer Blueberry Liqueur. It doesn’t take up much space or time to put up, but you do need to devote some time to filtering the liqueur. This liqueur can be sipped and used in cocktails, but it also adds a perfect blueberry note to fruit salads, and crumbles, in whipped cream and poured over pound cake. I add some to my blackberry jam. In short, it’s one of my kitchen staples. Since I first made it several summers ago, I’ve had some on hand. If you cultivate a few staples like these that make your cooking special, you can add your own style to every dish you make.
Summer Blueberry Liqueur
(recipe adapted from Gunther Anderson)
You will need several months processing time to make and age this liqueur. Ideally, use big, plump, juicy blueberries you picked last summer and froze whole. If this isn’t possible, use organic frozen blueberries.
2 cups, packed, frozen blueberries
1.5 cups vodka (80 proof)
zest from one organic lemon, in long strips (use vegetable peeler, making sure to get only yellow part)
.75 cups simple syrup (see recipe below)
Optional: whole spices, such as a few black peppercorns, coriander, cloves, part of a cinnamon stick, juniper berries, a dried chili
Steeping the Berries
Don’t worry about the simple syrup yet. Let blueberries thaw, mush them up well to release juices. You are using frozen berries because they are much juicier than fresh ones. In a quart jar with a tight-fitting, removable lid, add the blueberries, the vodka, and the lemon peel. Steep for at least one month in a cool, dark place (no need to refrigerate), shaking gently every couple of days.
Making Simple Syrup
Now worry about the simple syrup. Boil two cups sugar to one cup water. Watch carefully once it starts boiling, because there will be a point where the liquid will suddenly go from cloudy to clear. When this happens, and the liquid is completely clear, you have succeeded in making simple syrup. Let cool, then use 3/4 cup for this recipe and the rest for your iced tea or lime rickeys. Can be stored in the refrigerator in a clean bottle.
Filtering the Liqueur
Open the blueberry jar, and strain the liquid from the berries. Filter the liquid three times: (1) through a sieve, (2) through a double layer of cheesecloth on the sieve, pressing down on the berries as much as you can to get out all the tasty berriness, and (3) through a gold coffee filter fitted atop a large funnel, and don’t skip this step, because it’s the one that will give you a ruby clear liquid. The last filter will be very slow. I find I need to rinse this filter several times because it gets plugged up completely with sediment.
Place liquid in a clean quart jar, then add 3/4 cup syrup to liqueur, shake well, and age for another month or two in a dark place. You may freeze the berry residue for use as alcoholic topping for ice cream, but I find the taste is a bit too harsh.
Spicing It Up
Many of the recipes online will tell you to add a few whole cloves or coriander – because I use this recipe for so many purposes and need to communicate “BLUEBERRY!” I prefer a clean blueberry taste, but you might like something spicier that acts as a counterpoint to the blueberry.