Have fruit, will feast. That’s a good motto for summer, when fresh produce is usually in abundance and bursting with vibrant flavor. When you get tired of eating it raw or tossing it on the grill to go with savory dishes, it’s a natural decision to bake with it. But then you have to choose between pies, pandowdies, slumps, and buckles. And then you probably have to find a recipe to work from. Not so if you go with a cobbler, crumble, or crisp, which are all so inherently easy you can pretty much literally throw any of them together.
You don’t even have to remember specific ratios, really; just trust your gut, and your taste buds. Unlike many other baking projects, these rustic fruit desserts are immensely forgiving of fudged measurements. But if you still want some guidance, follow these simple steps the first time or two, and it will quickly become second nature.
1. Choose Your Fruit
Whether you go with a single variety (say, peaches) or mix two or three together (peaches, nectarines, and blackberries), shoot for about six cups of fruit total for a 9-inch square pan of dessert—though you can bake this in larger or smaller pans from casserole dishes to cast iron skillets, adjusting the fruit amount as needed. You may end up with different ratios of topping to fruit, but the taste will be delicious every time. Any soft, fresh fruit is fair game; just wash and dry it first. Peel if you want, but you don’t have to. If you’re using frozen fruit instead, thaw it before you bake; it doesn’t take long, especially if you spread it out in a single layer while the oven preheats. If you want the juices to be thicker and a little more gelled, toss your fruit with cornstarch (one to two tablespoons should do; the juicier your fruit, the more you’ll need)—and do it right in the baking dish, no need to dirty an extra bowl. You can also use a little flour to the same effect, or tapioca or arrowroot starch if you’ve got it.
2. Balance Its Flavor
Try your fruit (preferably before you add the cornstarch or flour) and bump up the flavor with sugar and acid to taste. You can use regular sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, agave, stevia, honey—any sweetener you like, in whatever quantity tastes right. And for the acid, lemon juice is classic, but try other citrus juice too. A little vanilla is always a welcome addition, and a few sprinkles of warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves work well, if you want them. But feel free to veer away from the traditional and add other spices and herbs instead, like thyme or cardamom or Chinese five spice powder, in small doses so the fruit remains the star. Gently toss it all until it’s evenly distributed among the fruit in the dish, and keep tasting until you love the flavor, then move on to the next step.
3. Add Your Topping
The whole semi-homemade genre gets a lot of scorn from certain factions (and okay, some of that is understandable; let us never forget Kwanzaa Cake), but while it may be admirable and noble and definitely delicious to craft every single thing from scratch, there is no shame in shortcuts.
For cobblers, that means you can drop biscuit dough straight from the tube on top, or even cinnamon rolls; lay on pieces of store-bought pie crust (also from a tube in the refrigerated section, but if all you have is a pre-formed frozen pie shell, let it thaw first and tear it into free-form scraps); or mix up a box of cake batter and pour it over top the fruit. If those ideas don’t sit well with you, chances are you can already make an easy pie crust from memory, and that’s a good choice too. If not, grab a box of Bisquick and follow the directions on the back for simple drop biscuits. The point is, this can be as quick and near-effortless as you want or need it to be, and it will still be good. If using a plain biscuit or pie dough, feel free to sprinkle the top with cinnamon and/or sugar for a little extra sweetness and crunch.
For crisps and crumbles, it’s easy enough to grab a stick of butter and mix it up with oats, brown sugar, spices, and maybe some chopped toasted nuts, but if you’re really in a hurry (or just not in the mood to fuss), mix the butter with store-bought granola or even cereal (varieties that include dried fruit, nuts, and clusters along with regular flakes is good if you want a more varied texture, but simple cornflakes will suffice). Break it down into slightly smaller pieces—depending on how much crunch you like, aim for about one to two cups total (whether using cereal or granola, or a homemade combo of oats and nuts)—and use your fingertips to work in anywhere from a half to a whole stick of softened unsalted butter diced into cubes. Unsalted is key, and I speak from experience; you can also melt it and mix it in with a spoon if you’re using sturdier streusel ingredients, but that might make some cereals soggy, so use your best judgment. Add in a few tablespoons of flour (or up to a cup if need be; the mixture should look like a crumbly, dry dough, and it may take more or less flour to achieve that), a little sugar, and a pinch of salt, then scatter it all over the top of your fruit.
If you don’t do butter, you can use coconut oil or Earth Balance instead, even a neutral oil like canola or grapeseed if that’s all you have. You just want some added fat, a bit of binder, and a smidge of extra sugar—and maybe a few more dashes of spice, depending on the flavor profile you’re going with—to make your topping taste even better and hold together somewhat.
4. Bake It
You’ll be safe baking at 350 degrees Fahrenheit in most ovens; just preheat it before you start preparing your fruit, then slide the pan in and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the dish halfway through. You want the topping (whether biscuits, pie dough, or some sort of crisp or crumble streusel) to be golden brown and the fruit to be bubbling; if the topping browns too fast, place a sheet of foil over the top of the pan. If you’re not getting enough browning, turn the heat up to 375, or even 400 degrees. And if you have particularly firm fruit like not-quite-ripe peaches or apples, you can give them a 10 or 15 minute head start in the oven (after dotting them with a bit more butter, if you like) before adding the topping and baking for another 30 minutes, or until it looks done.
5. Top It Off
You don’t need a creamy element to enjoy your fruit cobbler, crisp, or crumble, but the contrast of cold, sweet, and creamy something against the warm, crisp crust and juicy, jammy fruit is indeed divine. Make easy whipped cream or buy vanilla ice cream, and serve up a generous portion with the still-warm dessert so it starts to melt into one glorious mess—but not before you get to enjoy a few bites of the contrasting temperatures and textures first (i.e. let the dessert cool down a little bit before serving).
It’s so easy, you can pull it off almost anywhere, from understocked rental house kitchens to remote campsites (as long as you bring all the requisite ingredients along with you to the wilderness), and you’ll never need to consult a recipe, although if you’d like to, here are a few to try.
This cobbler calls for a store-bought pie crust, which makes a nice change from the usual biscuit topping, and works with stone fruits just as well as it does with berries. Get our Basic Berry Cobbler recipe.
This equally easy cobbler showcases the boxed cake mix method. You can also make this in a standard oven, but when camping, if you don’t have (or want to lug along) a Dutch oven, you can bake it in a disposable aluminum pie plate wrapped in foil—just take extra care not to let it burn over the fire. Get our Campfire Cake and Berry Cobbler recipe.
If you’re grilling dinner, you may as well put some nectarines or peaches on for an easy dessert. This breaks from the basic oven-baked formula, but proves just how adaptable this family of desserts truly is. Get our Grilled Nectarine Crumble recipe.
To further drive that point home, this peach crumble is made entirely in the slow cooker. It’s not as crisp as what would come from an oven, but you can always scatter some roasted nuts or toasted coconut on top just before serving. Get our Slow Cooker Peach Crumble recipe.
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