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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions by Louise Mor­gan

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)

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