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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fruit Crisps




My raspberries are currently on hiatus, having finished their July efforts a little less productively than most years but once again full of blossoms and “baby berries.” The hordes of bees humming all around are a wonderful sight. I sometimes think these berry bushes read the calendar better than I, since turning the page from July to August almost invariably means that all remaining red or even pink berries miraculously disappear. Then, Labor Day weekend arrives and ripening berries again appear, gracing the yard and my table from then until frost.
Even though there are no fresh berries available right now, I have two large raspberry crisps in the oven, ready to take to a dinner this evening. Anticipating another good crop, it seemed like a good time to clear out the last of the 2010 packages. That’s the lovely thing about fruit crisps: they are as good made from frozen fruit as fresh, so they can be enjoyed year round.

I have been making apple and other fruit crisps for so many years now that I rarely pull out any kind of recipe. Instead, I think of the topping in terms of ratios—flexible ones at that—so I can just make as much crumble as I want for the particular amount of fruit or presentation. Sometimes, I reduce the amount of fat for a little more basic dessert but other times the crumb topping is just like a shortbread cookie with some oatmeal and nuts added in. If I have a lot of fruit and I will be serving the crisp with ice cream or whipped topping, I might make less of the crumble. Other times, there might be more crumbs as I try to stretch a limited amount of fruit to serve just a few more people. However I end up making it, there never seem to be complaints!

Perhaps more than a recipe then, today I offer some “guidelines.”

Fruit Crisp Topping

1 part butter (or up to half canola oil and the rest butter)—for a very buttery topping, increase the butter so it equals the sugar amount
1 1/2 parts sugar
2 parts flour
cinnamon, nutmeg, and/or allspice to taste
1 1/2 to 2 parts oatmeal—usually the quick (NOT instant) rather than “old-fashioned” though the latter can make an interesting texture
1 part chopped walnuts, almonds, or pecans (optional)
Soften the butter just enough so that it can be mixed into an evenly crumbly texture with the remaining ingredients. A large fork is usually the best for this. Start by mixing the butter, sugar, flour and spices, and then add the oatmeal and nuts after the rest of the mixture is evenly distributed.

If you translate the above so that one part equals one cup (1 c butter, 1 1/2 c sugar, etc.), you should end up with about 6 to 6 1/2 cups of crumbs, a pretty large amount.
Now, some added details...


How Much Fruit? How Much Topping?
How do I decide how much fruit and how much topping to use? Again, this can vary a great deal. One of the things my mother used to do when making fruit pies was to cut the fruit right into a pie pan of the same size that she would be using for the dessert. When it was full enough (which meant heaping up, because the fruit always cooks down), she would pour it into a mixing bowl and add in whatever sugar, flour or cornstarch, and spices she felt that amount needed. Maybe that’s where I learned my “inexact” approach to these desserts. Anyway, here are some approximations that should serve you very well.

For a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan or 8 or 9 inch square pan, use 3 to 4 cups of fruit and about 2 cups of crumbs. If you want to make a 9 X 13 or similar large pan of crisp, you will probably need 6 to 8 cups of fruit and 4 to 5 cups of crumbs.

In the picture above, you can see that I used a higher proportion of fruit to crumble than is probably typical, but I was being really extravagant with the berries. (Yes, if I were buying raspberries, this would not at all fit the "frugal" aim of the blog. Even at the very lowest prices I have seen in the past year, the cost of the fruit in these two crisps would easily surpass $20 or even $25. One more blessing of even a small garden and fruit area in the back yard.)

Sugar:
The amount of sugar (and possibly thickener like flour or cornstarch) will vary depending on the fruit. For a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan, you will want 1/2 to 1 cup of sugar, depending on the fruit. Berries usually need 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of sugar, while peaches, nectarines, etc. might require only 1/2 cup, depending on how ripe they are. “Pie” cherries and anything with rhubarb usually need a full cup of sugar.

How can you tell if you have enough sugar? You taste it. Stir the fruit and sugar together well and then take a tiny amount of the fruit with some of the sugary coating and try it out, recognizing that there will be more blending of the flavors as the crisp cooks.

Thickener:
The greater the proportion of fruit to topping, the more thickener you are likely to need. Obviously too, the juicier the fruit, the more flour or cornstarch you’ll need. Here is where recipes can help if you haven’t made many of these kinds of desserts before. (Pie filling recipes work well for fruit crisps as well.) If you look at my January 31, 2011, entry below, you will also find a special way to make apple crisp, Tarte Tatin, that really moves this basic dessert to a whole new level.

Apples present a special problem, since some varieties will cook up with far more juice than others, so a recipe developed for something like Granny Smith apples might turn out very thin if Macintosh apples are used instead. So what are you supposed to do if you don’t know how your apples will cook up or what kind of apples were used in the recipe you are trying? Sometimes, trial and error. There are a lot of resources online that provide some information on specific varieties and what they are like after cooking, but, as noted below, sometimes you will just need to take your best guess and see what happens. As noted below, if you have the sweetness right, you can get by with a lot of variation in the ultimate consistency. I will admit to preferring juicy to “dry,” so I tend to keep the thickener amount on the light side if in doubt. 

Flour or cornstarch? Cornstarch provides a clearer, glossier sauce around the fruit, so that is usually my first choice. However, I find flour works just fine for apples and rhubarb and is perfectly acceptable for any fruits. (I used to use instant tapioca for some fruit fillings, but the expense and extra effort just doesn't seem necessary.)

Fruit:
Another wonderful thing about fruit crisps is their wonderful ability to turn mixtures of all kinds of fruits into a continuing variety of desserts. I live in a part of the country where fall apples are sometimes extremely low in cost, so I often mix these with more expensive fruits since the apples add fruitiness and sweetness while staying in the background of the blueberries, raspberries, etc. Rhubarb (still not at all my favorite!) is also a great stretcher if you have it available in your back yard (or your neighbor’s—these are the spring zucchini of garden sharers). Just think of all those strawberry rhubarb recipes you’ve seen. If you have a couple of peaches that are starting to get a spot or two, you can mix them with whatever berries you happen to have or with apples or even pears and come up with a whole new dessert.

Baking:
Now that I have the fruit in the pan, the crumbs spread over the top, how do I bake it and for how long? Use a 350 degree oven and plan on baking the crisp for 30 to 55 minutes. Berries and other soft fruit will take the shortest time to bake. You will want the filling to be bubbly and, if you have apples, peaches, or other firm fruit, you should be able to insert a table knife into the center and feel that the fruit is thoroughly soft. Fruit crisps are wonderful right out of the oven, but can be served barely warm or cold as well.

Some “cures” for unexpected results:
If the dessert is “juicier” than you’d like:
Serve it in bowls, with ice cream. Though these desserts are really good warm (or even hot), chilling a runny crisp can sometimes thicken it up quite a bit, so that is an option too.
If the dessert is “too thick”:
Cut it in squares and dollop some whipped topping (or ice cream again) over the top. Serving with just plain cream drizzled over is an old fashioned way to serve desserts and can be ideal for a crisp that is just too thick. Sometimes, warming the pieces for a few seconds in the microwave can also make the dessert less firm.
If you discover the filling is not as sweet as you’d like:
Again, go with some ice cream or sweetened whipped cream. If you really missed your target, you could make a sugar syrup (1 cup sugar to 1/2 c water, boiled for about 5 minutes) and drizzle over the entire dessert. I think you’d have to have done something drastically off to need this however.
If you discover the filling is way over the top too sweet:
Try a Wisconsin approach and serve with some slices of good cheddar or similar cheese. You could also top with plain yogurt instead of ice cream or whipped topping.

Final thoughts:
Be flexible…and that is my advice for all manner of crisps. Sometimes you will end up with a dessert that needs to be served in bowls with a spoon and other times you might have a result that is dry enough it looks like a filled cookie bar. Unless you got the sweetness balance wrong somehow, you are likely to find that your dessert will be eagerly received, no matter the consistency…and you just smile when the compliments come in and let everyone assume that you meant it to be just as it came out.

The key to remember with fruit crisps is their wonderful variations and forgiveness of our little changes and missteps. They are also pretty quick to make, especially when compared with pies, and provide endlessly varied desserts as the seasons progress.

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