June is prime time for berries, with fruits like peaches and nectarines just days or weeks away. Wonderful when eaten raw, these fruits also make excellent pies. But while I love blueberry pie, especially when served with ice cream, my list of summer activities doesn’t include rolling out a pie crust. Fortunately, there are plenty of other options.
Chips and crumbles, like their kissable cousins - the grunt, slump, loop, crunch and cobbler – are part of an extended family of homemade fruit desserts that are part of the tradition. American cuisine since colonial times. Curiously, ancient recipes for desserts are rare, as the dishes were considered too simple to require written instructions.
Mentalities changed at the end of the 19th century. The country was more urban and less homogeneous, and Americans were eager to explore their culinary heritage. In the 1920s, recipes that had always been passed down informally from generation to generation began to appear in cookbooks and consumer publications.
Like so many other aspects of popular culture, recipes and terminology are open to individual interpretation. One cook’s “crispy” may be another cook’s “crumble”, and even today the exact definitions remain elusive.
In “Classic Home Desserts” (Chapters Publishing Ltd., $29.95), for example, author Richard Sax writes, “I’m thinking of a real cobbler made with cookie dough, but the pie crust is often used. For me, it’s dough on top, fruit on the bottom. But many southern peach cobblers have bottom crusts or two crusts with fruit in between. So, he concludes, “Who’s to say…that these traditional Southern shoemakers aren’t real shoemakers”?
Rather than arguing on this point, let’s just agree that with everything going on in the world, it’s a pleasure to focus, even for a minute or two, on the exact definition of a “cobbler”.
Typically, crispy, crunchy, or crumble fruit is coated with a simple mixture of butter, sugar, and flour before being baked. Stick to the basics, and it’s a crisp. Add nuts, and it’s a crunch. Replace the nuts with rolled oats, and it’s a crumble.
Growls and sags were originally cooked in pots hung overhead and over an open fire. Updating the technique, modern cooks typically simmer or steam desserts on the stove top in tightly covered pans. The 1992 edition of “The Joy of Cooking” (Scribner, $30), says sags are cooked and then served dumpling-side up. Grunts, on the other hand, are steamed in a mold placed 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 “Cobblers, Crumbles & Crisps and Other Old-Fashioned Fruit Desserts” by Linda Zimmerman and Peggy Mellody (Clarkson Potter). This time the growls are done in cast iron skillets, the slumps either in a pot or a skillet. Berries of one kind or another are the fruit of choice for a grunt, according to the authors, while sags – according to them – can be made with any type of fruit.
Some theorize that the growl is named after a sound the dessert makes while baking; others say the name refers to the satisfied sounds people make when they eat it. As for the slump, the dish was immortalized by author Louisa May Alcott (“Little Women”), who named it “Apple Slump” in Concord, Massachusetts.
A final variation (at least for now) – the loop – is usually made with berries, which are folded into a cake batter and then covered in a mixture of flour, sugar and butter. Curl Cake can be baked in a square pan or in a casserole dish, but like the rest of the desserts, it should be served warm with heavy cream, complementary sauce or ice cream on the side.
Peach and blueberry crumble
4 cups peeled and thickly sliced peaches
2 cups blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons of flour
11/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
Toss fruit with sugar, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons flour and spread in a greased 2-quart casserole dish.
In a food processor, combine the flour, rolled oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt.
Add the butter and pulse until the mixture has the texture of coarse crumbs.
Sprinkle topping over fruit.
Bake until top is golden brown and bubbly, 30 to 40 minutes.
Serve hot 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 place of peaches and blueberries.
David Joachim, “Brilliant Food Tips and Cooking Tricks” (Rodale, Inc. $29.95)