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Crumbles, Cobblers and Crisps

Martha Stewart Living, August 2005

The Recipes
Sour-Cherry Pistachio Crisp
Pear Brown Bettys
Apricot-Almond Cobbler
Rhubarb-Berry Crumbles
Plum-Nectarine Buckle
Apple-Raisin Pandowdy
Berry Grunt
Peach-Blueberry Cobbler

As you generously scoop a fruit dessert onto a plate -- or into a bowl, to better catch the warm, running juices and broken bits of topping -- you probably don't give much thought to its name. Faced with that first delicious bite, the question of which silly word to assign to the treat seems purely semantic. Such detail matters earlier, when you have a basketful of sun-kissed fruit, a handful of basic baking supplies, and an idea to meld it all into some sort (but which sort?) of sweet. A crisp with lots of crunchy, sugared oats on top? A moist, cakey buckle? A buttery, breadish betty?

Each rolls off the tongue differently and plays on the palate in a distinct way. A pandowdy, with its rustic piecrust topping, is mussed up intentionally, giving it a dowdy appearance that encourages one to dive in with abandon. A crumble, as you might guess, features irresistibly crumbly morsels that make the fruit (almost) seem like an afterthought. A cobbler, possibly named for the way cooks cobbled it together from ingredients on hand, is as inviting and homey as it sounds; it is made with sweet-tart filling and either a moist batter or a billowing biscuit topping. A grunt is similar but topped with unassuming dumplings and cooked on the stove. This dessert is true to its oddball name -- its fruit bubbles noisily as it cooks, tempting anyone within earshot. (A grunt is also sometimes called a slump, a name that comes from its graceless habit of falling all over itself when served in a gooey, yummy mess.)

All of these down-home desserts are friends to the hostess: They are humble in appearance and easy to prepare but have sophisticated flavors. They belong to a corner of the baking world where kitchen chemistry mingles with improvisation: They have a lot in common with more precisely prepared pies and tarts but are less fussy. Some require more effort than others -- pandowdies with their rolled pastry crust, for example, or coffee-cake-like buckles, made with both batter and crumbly topping. Mostly, though, it's a simple matter of slicing, mixing, topping, and baking berries or other fruits that are at their peak.

Recipes for these desserts were primarily passed by word of mouth from mother to daughter, not created by and attributed to a particular chef. Many date loosely to colonial America (some, like crumbles, hark back farther to England), where a necessary efficiency prompted home cooks to look in their larders and out their windows into the fields or orchards before whipping up dessert for the family. Cooks throughout the colonies all began with the same staples -- butter, flour, and sugar. They had different fruits available, though, and different inclinations. As a result, several variations on a theme -- as well as an extended culinary vocabulary -- were born. On these pages, you'll find our own interpretations of that traditional kitchen handiwork. Give them a try, then reinterpret as you wish.

Start with the fruit that looks best at the fruit stand or market. Load handfuls of ruby-red sour cherries into a bag, grab bunches of blushed apricots, or pick up a pint, quart, or more of blueberries. You can substitute one berry for another, and swap stone fruits to suit your taste. If some seem slightly tart or extra sweet, more or less sugar can even out the flavor. For the toppings, try your favorite spice combinations or add nuts for crunch. Other ingredients are probably already in your cupboard. Flour is a dependable, at-the-ready thickener; cornstarch works, too, especially when you need strong thickening power for the juiciest fruits. Tapioca is another good choice and will keep the filling from getting cloudy, which is a benefit when you're using brightly colored fruit.

As you experiment, you might inadvertently redefine the dessert, turning a grunt into a crumble, or even add a new member to the genre. It makes no difference; let your mood and your supplies guide you. Then pop your creation into the oven or onto the stove and check it once in a while. If the top starts to overbrown, tent it with foil. Wait for the juices to bubble in the center before pulling it from the heat. Then resist the urge to hurry. Let it cool until the juices thicken, and serve the dish to guests with pride. Don't worry if they smirk when they hear the name -- soon enough, they'll be busy enjoying every bite.