Crumble, comfort and joy
It feels as if we’ve been eating them forever, yet they’re actually a relatively recent– and possibly American–invention. Debora Robertson examines our enduring love of humble crumbles and explains why deconstructing them is a crime
Nothing beats a piping-hot bowl of fruit crumble, but is this queen of puddings actually American, asks Debora Robertson
ICOULDN’T be more surprised to learn that crumbles are a relatively recent, wartime invention than if you told me Vera Lynn trilled the White Cliffs of dover into being in 1942. We imagine that the crumble, that most British of puddings, has always been with us.
However, Alan davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food states: ‘Recipes for crumble do not appear in old books of English recipes, nor is it recorded until the 20th century. Crumble is much quicker and easier to make than pastry and it seems probable that it developed during the Second World War.’
In her fine book English Puddings: Sweet and Savoury, Mary Norwak claimed the first printed mention of the crumble appeared in the 1950 edition of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book —so, both recent and American.
This has shaken me to my foundations and the only remedy I know is to retreat to the kitchen and cook. Mercifully, The National Trust Book of Crumbles by Laura Mason falls onto my kitchen table, filled with comforting recipes for crumbles sweet and savoury, together with their doughy cousins crisps, cobblers, grunts, slumps, buckles, pandowdies and sonkers (such irresistibly sturdy, labradorish names).
The beauty of crumbles is that they have so few ingredients, sometimes as few as four—fruit, flour, butter and sugar—which, with the addition of heat, transform themselves into puddings of sublime comfort.
Crumbles have everything. They’re sweet, tart, yielding, crunchy and caramelised. They are the hometown boyfriends of puddings. Our heads may occasionally be turned by other, more superficially thrilling specimens, but, oh, the joy of coming home.
It’s hardly surprising that, in the past couple of decades, the revival of interest in English food has meant that the humble crumble has claimed its place on many
fashionable menus. Unfortunately, it’s also fallen prey to the insidious modern trend of being ‘deconstructed’, with the crumble baked separately and then scattered over fruit compote, resulting in yielding fruit topped with honeyed rubble and disappointment.
In a brave moment, I asked Jeremy Lee, king of puddings and chef-proprietor at London’s Quo Vadis restaurant, what he thought about this trend. ‘A deconstructed crumble is a tragic thing. Compote, crumbled biscuits, a dod of cream. Where’s the love?’ opines Mr Lee. ‘What could be better than some beautiful, piping-hot rhubarb or apples or gooseberries bubbling away beneath a beautiful crumble? What could possibly be more divinely tempting? All that deliciously gooey goo beneath the crust is absolutely irresistible.’
In her book, Miss Mason gives the portions of the classic crumble as two parts flour and one part each sugar and butter. Fiddling with the proportions and including a higher percentage of sugar and butter gives crisper, less cakey results. Using equal quantities makes it very crisp indeed, creating something that’s perhaps better as a streusel topping for a fruit tart.
You can also experiment with different combinations of sugars, perhaps using some demerara or light muscovado for their textures and toffee-ish notes. Try substituting ground or chopped nuts for some of the flour—up to about 20% almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts works very well. Adding ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg or even the barest amount of cardamom or citrus zest to the flour can also elevate this humble pud to its Sunday best.
Although crumbles are infinitely variable, I resist the temptation to use wholemeal flour and add all manner of seeds and grains. In the pleasure-averse, this inclination is strong and transforms the topping into something that resembles granola.
The joy of a good crumble is that modest ingredients are transformed into something magnificent, not that expensive ingredients are transformed into something worthy. Apart from anything else, nutrition-by-stealth is an insult to good custard.
I rub my topping together by hand. It’s a quick and pleasurable task, so it hardly seems worth hauling the food processor off the shelf and then having to wash it up, too. Also, with a processor, it’s easy to over-process your ingredients, resulting in a tough crumble. Simply sprinkle your gently cosseted topping over the fruit and resist the toughening urge to pat it down (it’s not a criminal).
‘Deconstructed crumble is yielding fruit topped with honeyed rubble and disappointment’
Fruit for crumbles generally doesn’t need pre-cooking, although apples benefit from a speedy five-minute poach in the barest splash of water or orange juice to get them going and quinces need to be fully softened before going into the oven. Most berries cook to a soft pulp, so they are better mixed with more robust apples, pears, peaches, nectarines or quinces.
Crumbles are also excellent made with any frozen fruit you may have stashed away, especially those short-seasoned jewels such as gooseberries, blackberries or rhubarb.
For unalloyed joy, it’s imperative to cool your crumble a little before serving it. You want the temperature to be somewhere between blistering heart-of-the-volcano hot and warm. They are enormously forgiving; no ‘serve immediately’ tyranny here. Simply take your crumble out of the oven just before you serve your main course and, by the time you are ready to eat it—unless you’re the most garrulous of families— it should be, as Goldilocks would have said, just right.
‘The National Trust Book of Crumbles: 50 delicious and comforting crumble and cobbler recipes’ by Laura Mason is published by Pavilion Books (£9.99)