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.)


Blackberries cobbled with topping, Nigel Slater's way. (Kim O'Donnel)

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.

Cobbler Topping
From "The Kitchen Diaries" by Nigel Slater

Ingredients
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)

Method
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.

For fruit:
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)

Ingredients
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

Method
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.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 3, 2007; 9:40 AM ET Baking , Desserts , Seasonal Produce , Summer
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Comments

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Hi Kim, Thanks for these recipes. Last summer when you were away (to your yoga camp perhaps), you had a guest writer for the blog who shared a recipe for Blueberry Breakfast cake. It was awesome. I cant find the recipe online. I was wondering if you had a link to it? Thanks.

Posted by: Cinci, OH | August 3, 2007 11:22 AM

Cobblers and crisps are delicious, but if you have to go lower fat, don't forget slumps: dumplings cooked on top of sweetened fruit. "Perfect Light Desserts" has one with some butter in it and the pbs site for Everyday Food has a recipe for cherries with dumplings that has no fat. The no fat one is lighter, the some butter one is tastier. The other advantage to slumps is not having to turn on your oven.

Posted by: Fran | August 3, 2007 11:58 AM

Martha Stewart has a recipe for peach cobbler that has a great topping. I just made it at a family get together (the topping on boysenberries) and everybody loved it. It calls for heavy cream, but I use whatever milk is on hand (usually 1%) and that works well. Depending on the fruit I'm using, I'll adjust the sugar/cornsarch ratio. Also, I like to heat the fruit on the stove, just until boiling, so that all that really has to cook is the topping...reducing the cooking time by about half. (this is helpful, when you don't even start dessert prep until after 7:30 and would like to eat dessert sometime before 10pm).

Another great cobbler recipe is one I discovered in college from Betty Crocker. You make the crust mixture and put that in the pan FIRST then put the berry mixture on top and as it bakes the crust rises to the top absorbing lots of berry goodness. (I liked to use a regular bag of mixed berries...once cooked, you don't even realize they weren't fresh).

Posted by: BBNotes | August 3, 2007 12:05 PM

Hi Kim -- Did you omit the end of the cobbler recipe by mistake? How long do you bake it and at what temp??? Thanks & have a great weekend.
-LMHS '86 (your little bro's classmate)

Posted by: Patricia | August 3, 2007 12:23 PM

I had been lamenting that the backyard of my new house was covered in thorn bushes and brambles. It wasn't until mid-July that I realized I should have been clued in my my use of the word "brambles," because I discovered bright red berries on the thorn bushes. Sure enough, there are raspberries all over my yard, with a few blackberries thrown in.

I wish I had made a cobbler. Yummy! Instead I canned up 3 pints of wild berry jam!

Posted by: RubyTue | August 3, 2007 12:50 PM

Hi Kim--

I definitely agree with Nigel. I, like you, subbed fresh yogurt for sour cream, and I was blown away by the lightness of his cobbler top. And the simplicity made it a perfect weeknight indulgence!

Posted by: devra | August 3, 2007 2:20 PM

Patricia, I was more focused on the cobbler top details, but 400 degrees is a good temp. for cobbler, and i usually allow for about 30 minutes. Start checking at minute 25. If you're interested in peach cobbler filling details, let me know. But I think if you follow rule of thumb -- 3-4 cups of fruit, 1 tablespoon flour and sugar, and then start fiddling with flavors, you can't really screw up the filling. cheers.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | August 3, 2007 5:45 PM

It's almost shameful, but my favorite cobbler recipe is what my mom always made, and what i call "Cheater's Cobbler"--cherry pie filling with a box of white cake mix on top and 1/2-1 stick of butter cut up and sprinkled on top. Very sweet, but very delish.

I've also made a yummy blackberry cobbler with a chewier topping that incorporated coconut and then served with a creme anglaise. It's more sophisticated, but the shortcut way is still my favorite!

Posted by: Li | August 3, 2007 10:16 PM

Cinci,

The recipe you are looking for is "Blueberry Pudding Cake". The column was from 7/25/06 and the recipe was originally from Gourmet Magazine. This is the recipe:

Blueberry Pudding Cake

1/3 cup plus 1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon cornstarch
10 oz blueberries (2 cups)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 teaspoon vanilla

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan.

Stir together 1/3 cup sugar with water, lemon juice, and cornstarch in a small saucepan, then stir in blueberries. Bring to a simmer, then simmer, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a medium bowl.

Whisk together egg, milk, butter, and vanilla in a large bowl, then add flour mixture, whisking until just combined.

Spoon batter into baking pan, spreading evenly, then pour blueberry mixture evenly over batter (berries will sink). Bake until a knife inserted into center of cake portion comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes.

Cooks' note:
Cake can be made 1 day ahead and cooled completely, uncovered, then kept, wrapped well in foil, at room temperature.

Makes 6 to 8 breakfast or dessert servings.

Gourmet
Quick Kitchen
July 2005

I have made this recipe regularly since I found it. I have tried blueberries, peaches, cherries, blackberries, apples and strawberries. I have added coconut to the batter and sprinkled nuts on top. I've made lots of changes - orange juice (plus lemon) instead of water when cooking the fruit (more cornstarch too). Whatever I tried - within reason - worked. Enjoy!

Posted by: elyrest | August 3, 2007 10:53 PM

Do you have any recipes for a crisp topping which doesn't include a huge amount of butter? I like the crunchiness of the crisp topping much better than the doughy texture of a cobbler topping--so plenty of oats is a good thing--but they seem to use a lot of butter, and butter, shortening, and oil make me feel sick in large quantities. Also--do you think it would be possible to make the dessert without any type of topping, or would the fruit burn? The sugary, melted fruit is always the best part.

Posted by: martha | August 6, 2007 11:34 AM

I do love cobbler, as I do most fruit-based desserts, but the idea of baking right now leaves me cold. Well, technically it leaves me hot as in my house just shot up 10 degrees and the air conditioning can't compesate and MAN I hate this freakin' humidity! Isn't there a similar dish that can be cooked stovetop? I remember reading about it. A slump or something? No that heating via stovetop won't also heat up the house, but it doesn't seem as bad.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | August 6, 2007 11:50 AM

For a lower fat fruit dessert, I make crumbles. I never go by a recipe--for the topping, I mix flour and oats with honey, maple syrup, cinnamon, maybe a pinch of salt, and just enough room-temperature butter or margarine so that it kinda sticks together (it's always less than half a stick). I mix the fruit with lemon juice, honey or maple syrup, and a handful of flour (white spelt flour works fine for those who are sensitive to wheat). Bake until bubbly and golden on top.

Posted by: Andie | August 6, 2007 5:07 PM

I have misplaced my favorite chocolate cake recipe that I found in the Washington Post years ago.

A woman's name was part of the title: ---Lubec's(sp?) blackraspberry (or blackberry) choc cake. A berry liquor was an ingredient.

Any chance, at all, of finding this?

Posted by: pat braunlich | August 9, 2007 10:47 AM

I make cobbler fruit filling on top of the stove. I refrigerate it until needed. When ready to think about serving I make lightly sweetened biscuits. I warm the filling and serve individual bowls with the fruit under or over a fresh biscuit.

Posted by: Sandra D'Onofrio | August 9, 2007 11:26 AM

The simplist way I've found to make the topping better is to add lemon zest and use brown sugar instead of white. I also use goat's butter instead of cow's, but that's because I'm allergic to cows. I think it tastes better too. I'll try goat's yogurt next time and leave out the lemon zest. Both might be a little too much zing.

Posted by: Janet Brown | August 9, 2007 11:53 AM

Hello Kim, Your column is great as well as the blogs with their suggestions, however I would like to be able to print the recipes only. Has that been addressed? I didn't see a way to do that. Thanks in advance for any way you can help.

Posted by: mysay | August 9, 2007 1:23 PM

Hi Kim! I love fruit desserts of all sorts and after making a couple of cobblers and crisps, using recipes from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, I thought I'd give your blueberry buckle recipe (from late May) a try.

I used some delicious peaches from the farmer's market for the fruit, laying them on top of the cake batter, and sprinkling the topping before baking. The result was delicious, but also kind of smushy looking? The cake got v. puffy and the topping melted into it, making it look like one big cake (nice and golden brown still) with peaches in the middle. I thought it was going to turn out like a fruited cake with a more distinct crumb top. Any ideas on how to achieve that?

Thanks! Love your blog!! :)

Posted by: Angela | August 9, 2007 1:47 PM

Perhaps I'm wrong, but when I read the recipe I thought "crumble" or "crisp" instead of "cobbler". In my neck of the woods, a cobbler has a crust on the top or perhaps even in the middle. Reference a Southern Living magazine or Paula Deen to see what I mean. It's so interesting to see what other parts of the country call things!

Posted by: Kentucky woman | August 9, 2007 2:38 PM

As a celiac I really miss some of my old standby desserts. Does anyone have a gluten-free version of a fruit cobbler?

Posted by: Rita | August 9, 2007 4:31 PM

Especially for "mysay" about printing a
recipe. Highlight just the part you want, then click on File in the upper left corner, click Print, choose "Selection", click print again, and it should print just the highlighted part. This works for me all the time. Or you could just highlight, copy, then paste the bit into an email and send it to yourself. That way you can file it where you wish.
Linda@austin.rr.com

Posted by: Linda Woodland | August 9, 2007 4:35 PM

I live in Colorado, where Western Slope peaches (and other stone fruit) are fabled for quality and sweetness. This is also the time of year that Key limes abound in our supermarkets. I devised a fairly simply peach cobbler recipe that also uses Key limes as the citrus component. I posted this recipe at http://culinary-colorado.blogspot.com/2007/08/p-is-for-pasta-p-is-for-peaches.html .

Posted by: Claire Walter | August 22, 2007 9:20 AM

Hope you post the baking directions so I can use the recipe this weekemd. Thanks

Posted by: Charley | August 24, 2007 9:22 AM

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