The other day while mushroom hunting out on the Olympic Peninsula, I came across some huckleberry patches that were absolutely loaded with ripe berries. My daughter is a huckleberry fanatic. She eats hucks with her pancakes, in her yogurt, over ice cream. Score!
I surprised Ruby with my huckleberry haul when she got home from school. We made egg custards for dessert and topped them with the fresh hucks. To be honest, I had never actually made an egg custard before, but after eating one of Donald Link’s creamy, southern-style custards this summer while he was visiting Seattle for his “Taste of Place” webcast, I knew I wanted to add this simple dessert to the repertoire.
For that custard, Chef Donald used red huckleberries we picked together in the Cascades foothills in the middle of summer. Here it was nearly the end of mushroom season and we were still able to forage fresh huckleberries. This is a good example of why it’s useful to recognize a variety of species in any particular genus. In Washington State we have 13 species of Vaccinium. Those in the know can pick ripe huckleberries as early as July and as late as December.
The evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is an important species for us West Coasters. It’s a lowland coastal variety, and it’s usually the last of the huckleberries to fruit, often when other species are covered in snow. Clearcuts are a good place to find them, and anywhere else where they can get ample sun. They fruit in clusters, which means the picking is faster than it is with red huckleberries or mountain varieties. Some pickers use a bucket and simply shake the huckleberries off the branch.
More than likely, when you get your evergreen huckleberries home you’ll also have a potpourri of twigs, leaves, and maybe a spider or two. The easiest way to clean your berries is to place them on a tray in batches, angle the tray slightly downward toward a colander, and start massaging the berries with the open palm of your hand. Roll them around so they part with their stems. Clean berries will roll down the tray and collect in the colander. Smashed berries, stems, and forest debris will remain on the tray.
The egg custard itself is simple as can be.
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup water
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup huckleberries
fresh nutmeg or cinnamon, grated to taste
1. Pre-heat over to 325 degrees. Combine milk and water in a small saucepan and bring to boil.
2. Mix egg yolks, sugar, salt, and vanilla together in a bowl.
3. Slowly whisk in hot milk-water mixture until frothy. Pour into 4 ramekins.
4. Place ramekins in an oven-proof dish or tray filled with warm water. Bake for 40 minutes. Carefully place a small handful of huckleberries atop each custard and bake another 10 minutes. Test one for doneness with a knife tip; if it comes away clean, the custard is done. Sprinkle with fresh nutmeg or cinnamon. Serve hot or cold.