| Things fall apart

The tempting and simple versatility of the crumble

When I say “bottomless pit of a stomach,” it may cause you to think of a ravenous teenage boy going through yet another growth spurt. However, I think of my tall, skinny roommate who can put away pre-dinner, dinner, and dessert with space left over to do it all again. It is not uncommon for me to come home in the evening to find her sliding a crumble into the oven, only to devour the entire thing and inevitably lick the dish clean by midnight. But this has only made me realize that before our metabolisms start sputtering out and sluggishly trying to keep up with our middle-aged carelessness about eating, we should make crumbles and eat the entire thing.

Crumble

General method:

A traditional crumble (or crisp) involves two components: a bottom layer of fruit, sometimes sweetened and flavoured, and a crispy topping strewn over the top. Exact amounts of fruit are unimportant, but use the equivalent of about six apples (see below for more specifics).

Once the topping is made (see below) put the fruit in a baking dish and scatter the topping over it.

Cook at 375°F for about forty minutes (longer if you like the topping to be more browned).

Makes:

About six large portions.

Fruit suggestions:

  • All apples cut in chunks and toss with two tablespoons of sugar and any or all of the following: cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, or orange zest.
  • My favourite: big chunks of pear mixed with Chinese five-spice (a mixture of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel, and Szechuan pepper), or ground-up chai tea (you can just cut open two tea bags and grind it in a bowl with the bottom of a wooden spoon).
  • Frozen berries (about three quarters of a regular bag) tossed with two tablespoons of sugar and one and a half tablespoons of flour or cornstarch. Mix with apples or pears for varied texture.
  • Strawberry, banana, and mango, all cut in very large chunks, mixed with just a sprinkle of sugar.
  • You can also use peaches, plums, nectarines, or any kind of berry. Squash or rhubarb can also be used, but both need to be boiled for about ten minutes beforehand. Combinations rarely fail.
  • To flavour, you could also use brown sugar, citrus zest and juice, vanilla, liqueurs, or ground teas.

Toppings:

For each topping the technique is the same: break whatever type of fat you are using, as seen in the recipes below (try to keep it cold, so leave it in the refrigerator until using), into small chunks and rub with the flour and sugar until it is like coarse bread crumbs. Try not to melt the fat too much with the heat of your hands.

  • Traditional: My mother recalls this recipe with the phrase “half fat to flour,” but I would suggest a slightly different ratio: one and a half cups of flour, half a cup of butter, and a quarter cup of sugar.
  • North American “Crisp”: Replace half a cup of the flour in the traditional recipe with one cup of oats.
  • Vegan: Use any margarine you like. The texture will be less crumbly, but it should still work well. If you freeze the margarine first and grate it into the flour, mixing very little to prevent melting, you will achieve a crumblier topping. You could also use half vegetable shortening with half margarine.
  • Gluten-free: Use rice flour (non-glutinous and not sweet rice flour) in the traditional recipe. Brown or white will work.
  • Chopped, ground, or sliced nuts can be added to any of the above.

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