The Cobbler-Top Debate
A summer without cobbler is like ______________________
For me, it's like a morning without coffee, a Sunday without the paper, a kitchen without garlic. Something feels amiss, not quite right. (Feel free to fill in the blank and weigh in below in the comments area.)
It's right around this time of year when blackberries and peaches are bursting at market that I get a yen for cobbler. Last Sunday, I brought home 2 pints of blackberries with drupelets (the small clusters of small fruits) taller than my thumb, resembling a beehive hairdo that Marge Simpson might envy. (By the way, the fruit clusters are not called brambles, as I had mistakenly assumed. The bramble is the actual plant, which is a thorny bush, and to bramble means to pick wild blackberries.)
They are almost too pretty to eat, but don't waste any time ogling (take a picture and move on). One bite and you'll know what I mean -- you'll have a jammy explosion on your tongue, the kind of full fruit flavor winemakers dream of. Whewee!
With a box of these jewels in hand, it'd be foolish to let them idle in the fridge, but if wait they must, you may want to consider throwing them into cobbler where no one will notice signs of aging.
Most folks know that cobbler and crisp is fruit combined with a wee bit of sugar (depending on existing sweetness), flour or cornstarch (for binding and containing the juices) and on occasion, a spritz of lemon. Extra flavorings such as booze, cinnamon, nutmeg, fresh ginger or basil is completely optional but worth trying at least once. The seasoned, slightly macerated fruit goes into a buttered baking dish, awaiting a topping and some time in the oven.
Now here's where crisp and cobbler differentiate. A crisp is just that -- it has a crispier, sometimes crunchier topping that includes butter and brown sugar, flour and sometimes oats. A cobbler usually includes some kind of biscuit-y hat, and that's what troubles Brit food writer Nigel Slater, one of my all-time favorites.
In the July 15 entry of his book, "The Kitchen Diaries," Slater argues that "The American cobbler, so beloved of Shaker bakers, is one summer dessert I usually file under 'overrated,' the dessert's scone-like topping seeming somehow too heavy and bland for the warm fruits below."
His solution on one July 15 is "a topping that is much lighter than the norm" with more leavening, less sugar and a tangier dairy product to tie it all together. Now, Nigel, my dear, you obviously haven't tried my cobbler topping, but I'll let you slide.
Usually I rely on topping of cream biscuits, which yield a firm pillow-y texture -- golden on top, yet soft and tender in middle, with enough tough to absorb the stewed fruit. Once I discovered this method, passed on by a friend who was a pastry chef in a former life, I never thought to change the topping equation.
But Slater's cobbler commentary had me thinking: Maybe this is exactly why I kept searching for the proper top. And I had to admit, I've had some dense, flavorless cobbler tops in my day.
In his honor, I set out to make cobbler the Slater way, which calls for a bit of sour cream and nearly a stick of butter. Not exactly low fat, but my way calls for more than a cup of heavy cream, so who am I kidding? Nonetheless, I did tweak things, using plain yogurt instead of sour cream and Earth Balance brand shortening, made from a blend of oils.
The results were slightly drier without my beloved cream, but the tang of the alternative dairy was a welcome addition, and I liked its more savory quality.
And now I leave it up to you. Below, details for Slater's cobbler top, followed by the cream biscuits I've come to use over the past several years. Better yet, make up your own top and share with the crew.
For a cobbler history lesson, check out a blog entry I wrote last year around this time.
Have a delicious weekend!
Recipes below the jump.
From "The Kitchen Diaries" by Nigel Slater
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon superfine sugar (I used granulated sugar in its place)
6 tablespoons butter (I used equal amounts of Earth Balance brand shortening)
4 ounces sour cream (I used plain yogurt instead)
In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and butter and pulse for a few seconds, until mixture resembles soft, fresh breadcrumbs. (You may also try this by hand, by "cutting" butter with a fork or with your fingertips.) Pour mixture into a bowl, and mix in sour cream. Dough should be soft.
3-4 cups fruit -- berries, peaches, nectarines, pitted cherries
If using peaches, a hearty squeeze of a lemon
Sprinkling of sugar -- about 1 tablespoon -- to taste
1 tablespoon flour
Grease an oven-safe glass, enamel-coated or stoneware baking dish, about 9 inches.
Toss fruit with sugar, flour and lemon, if using.
Cream Biscuits (adapted from Nancy Silverton's Pastries from the La Brea Bakery)
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour (sifted)
3/4 teaspoons salt
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups heavy cream, plus 1 tablespoon for brushing
In a large mixing bowl, combine sifted flour, salt and baking powder, and mix with sugar. Make a well in center of bowl, and pour cream in center. Use hands to combine dough, which comes together very quickly. With your hands, take small pieces of dough and stretch thin and place on top of fruit, covering entire surface. With a pastry brush, apply heavy cream and sprinkle more nutmeg for good measure.
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