Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fruit Crumbles, for Thanksgiving and Whenever

Most evenings, I come home from work and cook dinner—that’s how I unwind. This afternoon, however, Roger emailed me and said he was craving a burrito from Buddy’s—could we order out? I was happy to oblige, but after dinner I felt this compulsion to cook something, so I actually followed a recipe and made an apple cake. It’s almost done now, and it smells great.

I like to bake, but it doesn’t give me the same creative rush as cooking—it’s harder to improvise. So if I do make dessert, I’m more likely to make something that can be improvised, and my standby is fruit crumble. Whatever fruit I’m using, I peel and slice it up and pile it in a pie plate or my round deep-dish stoneware. In the fall, it’s likely to be apples, pears, or a combination. In the late summer I love to make a crumble with apples and raspberries—just toss a handful of berries over the apples before adding the topping; in the fall or winter, cranberries are an interesting substitute.

And here’s the real seat-of-the pants aspect of the recipe: the topping. If I’m making a little light dessert for the family, I go light on the crumble. I melt a couple of tablespoons of butter, then right in the saucepan, I mix a couple of tablespoons of sugar (brown or white) and a couple of tablespoons of flour. If I have some ground nuts around, I’ll throw some in as well. A little cinnamon and then check the consistency. Still too wet? A little more sugar, a little more flour, until the crumble is, well, crumbly. This makes just enough topping to strew over the fruit and make it look festive and interesting. For company, I’d probably make a more comprehensive topping, starting with as much as six tablespoons of butter and increasing the sugar and flour accordingly. (Some like oats in their crumble topping, and if you do, be my guest. I’m a purist, and I like to stick to sugar and flour.)

Lately I’ve been doing something a little different—making a streusel topping and using it on fresh or poached fruit. A basic recipe is equal parts by weight of butter, sugar, flour, and ground almonds. In this case you need to use cold butter and cut it into the flour and sugar—fussier, but the results are great. When the butter is evenly distributed through the dry ingredients, spread the topping on a cookie sheet and bake at 350. If you let it bake like this for too long, you end up with one big cookie—it’s not the end of the world, you can break it up into pieces and use them as a topping. Instead, though, pull the tray out of the oven after about ten minutes, and chop up the topping with knife. If you do this a couple of times, you end up with a great streusel topping that keeps very well in a plastic container, and you can use it to dress up lots of simple desserts. We’ve been making parfaits, in a set of glass parfait dishes I inherited when my father and stepmother sold their house last summer. Some vanilla ice cream topped with a poached pear, some streusel sprinkled on top—very elegant.

P.S. I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but didn’t have a chance to post it. Here’s a post-Thanksgiving addendum: My sister and brother-in-law hosted on Thursday, and the food was fabulous (they served turducken!). At their request I brought an apple crumble, but of course it had to be pareve. I bought the best quality margarine I could find, and the result not only tasted great—it looked really beautiful. However, no one but me saw it in all its glory. I transported it in my Pampered Chef carrying case and put it on the kitchen counter, where my sister's cat promptly curled up on top of it (on top of the carrying case, with the crumble still in it). When we removed the crumble from the case, it had turned into a slump—the topping was completely flattened. However, warmed in the oven and served with pareve vanilla ice cream, it was still delicious. Happy Thanksgiving!

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