Food & Drink

By day, pastry chef picks blueberries at his farm. By night, they star in his desserts.

Il Palio pastry chef Deric McGuffey owns Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm with his wife and family and makes the most of blueberries.
Il Palio pastry chef Deric McGuffey owns Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm with his wife and family and makes the most of blueberries. TNS

This time of year, Deric McGuffey’s life revolves around blueberries.

He starts most days picking them under the hot morning sun at Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm, an organic, no-spray operation he and his wife, Kether Smith, purchased with family members three seasons ago.

By afternoon, inspiration follows him to the relative cool of the kitchen at Il Palio in Chapel Hill’s Siena Hotel, where he is the pastry chef.

“We’re seeing probably the best blueberries I’ve come across in 17 years of baking with them,” says McGuffey during a recent break at the farm.

He and Smith are so confident about the dynamic flavor contained in the plump orbs that they recently branched into production of blueberry-based wines and ciders under the Botanist and Barrel label.

Later this fall, his dessert-making skills will be spotlighted Sept. 14 at Festa Italiano, an all-star chef dinner event hosted by Il Palio chef Teddy Diggs that benefits Friends of the James Beard House. Soon, he’ll turn his attention to the seasonal delight he’ll make to wow guests.

But for now, McGuffey is content to slip some of his blueberries onto the regular menu at Il Palio.

Diners currently can cap off their meal with his elegant Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Poached Cedar Grove Blueberries and Poppyseed Crisp. The dessert is a bona fide showstopper and is often acknowledged by glowing reviews via social media. The tender panna cotta, made with fresh chevre from Goat Lady Dairy, is hidden below a gleaming layer of blueberry gelatin and topped with a pleasingly brittle poppyseed cookie. It’s all meant to suggest a deconstructed cannoli.

While it tastes like something beyond the reach of mere mortals, McDuffey says the blueberry layer starts simply from the jus rendered from poaching the berries in fresh-squeezed lemon juice and sugar. He adds gelatin, giving it body and a sleek shine, reserving the berries for garnish.

Easy for him to say. At home, a bit more like the rest of us, McGuffey is more inclined to treat his family to a fresh-baked blueberry crisp. Made with mostly pantry ingredients, it comes together in a snap.

Make one soon, before this year’s blueberry season tapers off by the end of August. McGuffey suggests topping the still-warm crisp with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh. She can be reached at 3lucases@gmail.com or via Twitter at @jwlucasnc.

Festa Italiano

Deric McGuffey will prepare the dessert course at Festa Italiano, a Friends of the James Beard House benefit dinner set for Sept. 14 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Il Palio in Chapel Hill’s Siena Hotel. Chef Teddy Diggs will be joined by several visiting chefs from North Carolina and around the country to present the multi-course meal, which includes wine and cocktails. Tickets are $175 for James Beard Foundation members or $185 for non-members. Order at ilpalio.com/festa-italiana/ or call 919-918-2545.

Blueberry Crisp

Recipe by Deric McGuffey of Il Palio and Cedar Grover Blueberry Farm. McGuffey notes that he is a little “heavy handed” with salt. “I love heavily sea salted caramel for example, and when you add the salt to the brown sugar in the streusel recipe, it's quite like that,” he said. But he said the salt can be reduced to taste.

1 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 1/2 sticks butter, chilled

2 teaspoons cinnamon, ground

2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 quarts blueberries

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine first six ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and work together until a nice crumble forms.

Toss berries in starch and place in a 9-by-9-inch (or similar) casserole dish. Evenly distribute streusel on top and bake for about 30 minutes, or until berries are bubbling. Cool and serve.

Yields: 6 servings.

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