Celebrating Alaska Berries

by Leslie Shallcross, Assistant Professor of Extension

For a nutritionist and a foodie there are probably two things that say “Alaska” most loudly — salmon and berries. This year’s salmon fishing season has been disappointing, so I am hoping for more success with berries. So far, I’ve tasted some very sweet cultivated strawberries and some very sour honeyberries. But as of late July, nearly ripe and a few ready-to-eat wild berries have been spotted in the Interior. Alaska is home to 75 species of berries including blueberries, crowberries, cloudberries, lingonberries, raspberries and salmonberries. Most are ready to pick between mid-July and early September depending upon the region and individual microclimates.

The taste of berries might be sufficient reason to start planning when and where you will fill your berry bucket. As a nutritionist, though, I am also interested in gathering berries for their potential health benefits. Berries contain a variety of compounds that may have some beneficial effects on human health and aging. While it must be cautioned that most of the research has been done in animals and cell cultures rather than in controlled human studies, berry compounds are known to kill viruses and bacteria, stop the proliferation of cancer cells and reduce inflammation. Studies of aging lab animals by researchers at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University show that eating the equivalent of ½ cup of blueberries daily for two months improved memory, coordination and balance. In some evidence from human research, individuals who ate berries twice a day showed lowered blood pressures, increased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) and reduced dangerous blblood clots. Consuming blueberries may lower blood sugar after meals. Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are currently looking at some of these compounds and their effects on markers of aging and inflammation.

Berries provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. It is presumed that these antioxidants are the real stars. Brightly and deeply pigmented plants such as vegetables, legumes, nuts and fruits all contain compounds with antioxidant properties. Of the many foods tested in specialized research laboratories, Alaska berries come out near the top in terms of their antioxidant content. Wild berries are far better than cultivated berries. The term for this antioxidant potential is called the “ORAC” value. A study by the UAF Cooperative Extension Service in 2013 show that ORAC values remained high in frozen and canned Alaska berries and in Alaska berry jams, syrups, sauces and fruit leather even they had been heated and processed.

But let’s get back to the issue of eating these berries. I will definitely make some jam and some lingonberry sauce. I will also keep as many berries as I am able to in the freezer for my most frequent dessert — a dish of berries with a little yogurt on top. I will aim for eating a 1/2 cup of berries per day and hope it improves my memory as well as it did for the aging animals. At the very least, the blueberries will add fiber, vitamin C, manganese, vitamin E and riboflavin to my diet.

I will also save some raspberries and some blueberries to make at least at least one extravagant Alaska Berry Celebration Cake. This cake is an Alaska version of a cake that I used to make for weddings and other special events. You can use frozen raspberries, but you must use fresh blueberries. The cake isn’t difficult to make, but I recommend breaking it up into a two-day process — one day to make the parts and one to put it together. Give the cake a few hours to sit before serving it. Oh, there is one difficult part — trying not to eat the berry filling before you assemble the cake!

Alaska Berry Celebration Cake

Sponge cake: Use your favorite sponge cake recipe and make two 9-inch layers.

Filling:
3 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
3 cups fresh blueberries
2 cups vanilla or cherry yogurt
1 package stabilizer (optional)
1 envelope plain gelatin
2 cups whipping cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
powdered sugar to taste

Frosting:
24 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup powdered sugar
zest from one lemon

For assembly:
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
strawberries, halved or sliced
fresh raspberries
fresh blueberries
wild roses, fireweed, edible flowers
1/2 cup warmed Alaska honey
sprigs of mint or scented geranium

Filling:
Drain frozen raspberries over a bowl. Heat the reserved juice with enough water to make 1/2 cup hot liquid and add packet of gelatin, stirring to dissolve the gelatin. Cool and mix with the berries. Refrigerate the berry/gelatin mixture until quite cool. Meanwhile, whip two cups of whipping cream with powdered sugar and vanilla until it holds its shape. Fold vanilla yogurt and cooled raspberry mixture into whipped cream and refrigerate overnight. (You may want to add a stabilizer to the whipping cream to help keep the filling firm if you are using frozen rather than fresh raspberries).

Frosting:
Soften cream cheese and whip with powdered sugar, vanilla and lemon zest until very soft and smooth.

Assembling the cake:
Split the homemade sponge cake layers horizontally. Using a pastry brush, brush the cut sides with orange juice, then raspberry jam. Remove raspberry/cream mixture from the refrigerator and fold in fresh blueberries. Place one cake layer, cut side up, on a serving plate and cover with one-third of the filling. Cover with cut sponge layer and place another one-third of the filling on top. Add the third sliced layer, jam side up, and spread with remaining one-third of the filling; place the final cake layer on top. Chill the assembled layers in the refrigerator briefly before frosting. With a decorating spatula — carefully smooth a thin layer of frosting on the cake. Place the cake in the refrigerator again and let the first layer of frosting cool so that it is firm. Put on the final coating of frosting to get a nice, smooth, white exterior.

Leslie Shallcross

Warm honey in microwave or on top of the stove so that it is very runny. Arrange the berries, other fruit, fresh flowers and herbs over the exterior of the cake in a pleasing pattern and brush the tops of the fruit with honey. Chill thoroughly before cutting so all layers settle together.

Leslie Shallcross is the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at 907-474-2426 or lashallcross@alaska.edu.