Crisps and crumbles

How sweet it is

By
December 16, 2009

Someone could write an entire dictionary of baked fruit desserts: the crisps, crumbles, buckles, slumps, pandowdies, young jeezys, and so on.

That someone is not me. When I go to make a fruit dessert, I keep coming back to the crumble-crisp axis.

Crumbles and crisps are identical cousins from opposite sides of the pond. They’re the British and U.S. terms, respectively, for fruit baked under a crumbly flour-and-butter blanket. (You know, like how Amy Winehouse is the British equivalent of Lindsay Lohan.) But I’m going to take a machete into this lexicographical thicket and emerge with an unsupportable declaration: If it has oats in the topping, I’m calling it a crisp. Otherwise, it’s a crumble.

These rustic fruit desserts have proved fertile ground for food writers — in fact, a book called Rustic Fruit Desserts has been a bestseller this year. I hesitate to tread where so many have gone before, even with a machete, but if you’re a crumble newcomer and just want a good basic recipe, where do you start? (This assumes there are any crumble newcomers left.)

apple-quince crisp
Who can resist a warm apple-quince crisp, especially when served with vanilla ice cream?

So I want to pare the world of baked goodness down to two simple toppings that open up a world of crisps and crumbles. You can make the topping ahead of time, store it in the freezer, and be ready to whip up a crumble any time ripe (or frozen) fruit comes your way.

Before we get to the recipes, I need to admit my weird bias: I don’t like nuts in my topping. I like nuts in general, just not here. If you like, add 1/2 cup chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, macadamias, almonds) to either of my formulas.

The crisp

The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (I have an edition from the 1990s) has long been the Joy of Cooking’s homely sibling, and I keep it around even in the era of How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition). Its handiest section is breakfast foods, but it has a top-notch crisp recipe.

The crisp topping consists of rolled oats, flour, butter, etc. It’s especially good on apples, but it also goes well with pears, plums, and cherries.

The crumble

Nigella Lawson has this one sewn up. Listen to her getting her hands dirty in How to Eat:

I can’t say I don’t ever use machinery to make crumble, but there is something peculiarly relaxing about rubbing the cool, smooth butter through the cool, smooth flour with your fingers.

Do I ever agree! The only unusual thing about Lawson’s topping is the use of baking powder, which she says makes the topping a bit lighter. (I agree again!)

To me, crumble is a summer afternoon, whereas the heartier crisp is a fall evening. But I break this rule all the time, and when I set a hot, fragrant pan of dessert on the table, who could argue with me? (Also, I have a machete.)

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The first time I made a crumble from Lawson’s recipe, I halved the recipe and neglected to halve the sugar. This appealed to my sweet tooth, so now I make it this way on purpose.

The quintessential crumble is rhubarb, and I’ve already posted my version of Lawson’s rhubarb crumble. But my take on her topping works on everything. You could fill a baking pan with freshly harvested organic nuts and bolts, and with this topping they’d be delicious.

Using the toppings

Any firm-textured fruit can work well in a crumble, and the less-firm fruits (mainly citrus, but passion fruit would be great too) work well as flavoring. Specifically, I’m talking about (deep breath) raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, cherries, apples, pears, peaches, plums, rhubarb, apricots, mangoes, bananas, and probably six other fruits I didn’t think of.

A little orange zest and juice is welcome in any crumble, because orange goes with everything and the acidity helps the fruit’s own flavor cut through the sugar. Just don’t add more than about 2 tablespoons of liquid to a pan’s worth of crumble.

So you get home from work and find a few apples in the fruit hammock and crisp or crumble topping in the freezer. No sweat. Preheat the oven while you peel and slice the apples. Toss them with a couple of tablespoons of sugar, place them in a pan, and sprinkle liberally with crumble topping. Make dinner on top of the stove while dessert bakes. After dinner, pull out the crumble and top it with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, crème fraîche, or nothing. (Leftover crisp or crumble is also great for breakfast.)

This is so easy I don’t know why I don’t have a crumble in the oven right now. Oh wait, I do! Peace out, slumps.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

Related recipe: Fruit Crisp Topping; recipe: Fruit Crumble Topping

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1. by zegg on Dec 17, 2009 at 6:15 AM PST

Cranberries, diluted with apples and plenty of sugar, make a great crumble/crisp too. And BTW my “best of british” cookbook does have oats in its “crumble” recipe.

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 17, 2009 at 6:27 PM PST

Excellent, zegg. I think we have some in the fridge right now. And yeah, I was being totally arbitrary about the oats.

3. by rajani@eatwritethink on Dec 18, 2009 at 4:37 AM PST

i have just been introduced to this idea by another blogger, its fantastic. i am going to try this out.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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