I always make apple crisp in the fall. However, I’ve seen references to other apple desserts: crumbles, cobbler, brown betty. Are they all the same dessert with different names or are they different in name and recipe?
They are not the same, although they’re similar. What they have in common is that they’re all an easy way to enjoy apples (or other fruits and berries) without making pastry. Lots of otherwise confident cooks avoid making pastry, and these preparations don’t require it. Other benefits to these rustic dishes are that they can be made with ingredients usually kept on hand, and in some cases use up ingredients that might otherwise go to waste.
There are actually a few more you didn’t mention – grunts, slumps, pandowdy, and charlottes, which are French. Here’s what’s what.
Crisps and crumbles (the British name for crisps) have a topping made like pie dough without the final step. That is, you mix together flour, sometimes oatmeal, sugar, a touch of salt, and optionally some spices like cinnamon, cloves, or ginger. Then you cut in butter as if making pastry. You can add chopped nuts at this point, too. However, this is where you stop. This streusel-type topping is sprinkled over the fruit before baking. It crisps up as it bakes and provides a nice crunchy topping that contrasts with the cooked fruit.
Cobblers are fruit baked with a biscuit topping. Usually the biscuits are made according to the drop method, which contains more moisture than the rolled-out method, and the dough is dropped by spoonfuls onto the fruit. Supposedly the name comes from the appearance of the dollops of dough, which are said to look like cobblestones.
Slumps and grunts (picturesque names, yes?) are cobblers which are cooked on the stove top rather than in the oven. The dough is steamed, not baked, which makes it a dumpling, not a biscuit. When served, it’s scooped out of the pan and inverted so the fruit is on top. This can be a bit more difficult technique, as dumplings will be soggy if not properly cooked. If you don’t have an oven, however, you can still have dessert.
Pandowdy can be made with either pastry or biscuit dough, is baked, and either during or after baking has the topping broken up roughly into chunks with a fork so that the fruit juices can bubble through. The name comes from the dowdy appearance this gives.
Charlottes are baked in a mold lined with buttered stale bread slices. This is filled with fruit, topped with another layer of stale bread, and baked. Because charlottes are solid enough to be turned out of the mold for serving, if you’re artistic you can make some fanciful designs with the bread slices for a very pretty presentation.
Brown betty, my least favorite, also calls for stale bread, but in crumb form rather than sliced. Buttered bread crumbs are layered with fruit, and the entire betty is topped with another layer of crumbs. It’s more pudding-like in consistency. The taste is good, but I prefer the contrast of the cooked fruit with a dough or other crisp topping.
These homey treats are usually served for dessert and are all the better for a topping of vanilla ice cream (for the less sweet ones) or heavy cream, either plain or whipped, for the sweeter ones. And of course, like pie, they’re equally enjoyable for breakfast.