June is prime time for berries, with fruits like peaches and nectarines just a few days or weeks in the future. Wonderful when eaten raw, these fruits also make terrific pies. But while I love blueberry pie-especially when it’s served with ice cream-my list of great summertime activities doesn’t include rolling out a pie crust. Luckily, there are a lot of other options.
Crisps and crumbles, like their kissing cousins-the grunt, slump, buckle, crunch and cobbler-are part of an extended family of homespun fruit desserts that have been part of the American culinary tradition since colonial times. Oddly enough, old recipes for the desserts are a rarity, since the dishes were considered too simple to require written instructions.
Attitudes changed by the end of the 19th century. The country was more urban and less homogeneous, and Americans were eager to explore their culinary heritage. By the 1920s, recipes that had historically been passed from one generation to another on an informal basis began appearing in cookbooks and mass-market publications.
Like so many other aspects of popular culture, the recipes and terminology are open to individual interpretation. One cook’s “crisp” may be another cook’s “crumble,” and even today, exact definitions remain elusive.
In “Classic Home Desserts” (Chapters Publishing Ltd., $29.95), for example, author Richard Sax writes, “I think of a real cobbler as made with biscuit dough, but pie crust is often used. For me, it’s dough on top, fruit underneath. But plenty of Southern peach cobblers have bottom crusts or two crusts with fruit in between.” So, he concludes, “Who is to say…that these traditional Southern cobblers are not true cobblers”?
Rather than argue the point, let’s just agree that with all that’s happening in the world, it’s a pleasure to focus-even for a minute or two-on the exact definition of a “cobbler.”
In general, the fruit in a crisp, crunch or crumble is topped with a simple mix of butter, sugar and flour before it’s popped into the oven. Stick to the basics, and it’s a crisp. Add nuts, and it’s a crunch. Substitute rolled oats for the nuts, and it’s a crumble.
Grunts and slumps were originally cooked in pots suspended over and open fire. Updating the technique, modern cooks usually simmer or steam the desserts on top of the stove in tightly covered pans. The 1992 edition of “The Joy of Cooking” (Scribner, $30), says slumps are cooked and then served dumpling side up. Grunts, on the other hand, are steamed in a mold place inside a covered kettle filled with boiling water. The cooked grunt is inverted and served dumpling side down.
A somewhat different interpretation is offered in Linda Zimmerman and Peggy Mellody’s “Cobblers, Crumbles & Crisps and Other Old-Fashioned Fruit Desserts” (Clarkson Potter ). This time, the grunts are made in cast-iron skillets, the slumps in either a saucepan or a skillet. Berries of one kind or another are the fruit of choice for a grunt, according to the authors, while slumps-they contend-can be made with any kind of fruit.
Some theorize the grunt is named for a sound the dessert makes as it cooks; others say the name refers to the contented sounds people make when they eat it. As for the slump, the dish was immortalized by author Louisa May Alcott (“Little Women”), who named her Concord, Massachusetts home “Apple Slump.”
A final (at least for now) variation-the buckle-is usually made with berries, which are folded into a cake batter and then topped with a mix of flour, sugar and butter. Buckles cake be baked in either a square pan or a gratin dish, but like the rest of the desserts, they should be served warm with heavy cream, a complimentary sauce or ice cream as an accompaniment.
Peach and Blueberry Crumble
4 cups peeled and thickly sliced peaches
2 cups blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons flour
11/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Preheat oven to 400-degrees
Combine the fruit with the sugar, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons flour and spread in greased 2-quart casserole.
In a food processor, combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt.
Add the butter and pulse just until the mixture is the texture of coarse crumbs.
Sprinkle the topping over the fruit.
Bake until the top is golden brown and bubbly, 30 to 40 minutes.
Serve warm with ice cream or heavy cream. Note: Six cups of apples, pears, apricots, rhubarb, plums or berries can be used alone-or in combination-in lieu of the peaches and blueberries.
David Joachim, “Brilliant Food Tips and Cooking Tricks” (Rodale, Inc. $29.95)
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