Do you crave dessert but prefer less sugar? Do you gravitate toward recipes that bake in no time and don’t heat your balmy summer kitchen much? Then you’re in luck, because the diverse universe of quick, easy and, coincidentally, lower-sugar cobblers and crisps has you covered.
Summery-souled, fruity cobblers and crisps have been around since Colonial days, when British and European settlers brought their recipes with them. Those bakers were adept at using what was seasonally copious, combining it with a few pantry ingredients for a sweet course that was satisfying and, as far as desserts go, nutritious.
The variations in toppings — crumbles, crisps, batter and biscuit dough — probably stemmed from regional and cultural preferences, as well as what a baker had on hand. Extra pie trimmings, or leftover biscuit dough, might do double duty as a cobbler top, while a nub of butter with some brown sugar and oats made a quick crisp topping. What these toppings had in common was that they were all pantry-friendly: sugar, butter, milk or buttermilk, flour or oatmeal, and a touch of cinnamon or spice.
One person’s crisp is another’s brown betty; a cobbler might be called a buckle by someone else, but there are slight differences. They are all similar desserts with different names. What they have in common is they are fruit-based, baked in a skillet or casserole, and have a topping but not a bottom.
Crisps, crumbles and betties all feature a crisp and clumpy topping of butter, sugar, flour and/or oatmeal. Cobblers are topped with a biscuit, pie dough or soft batter, with the dough or batter dolloped on top of the fruit. Buckles, the precursors to present-day coffeecakes, are similar to cobblers, but the fruit is generally folded in.
There are also a slew of derivatives — from grunts and slumps to sonkers and pandowdies — all homespun desserts of fruit and something floury and sweet to tie it all together.
Fruit flavor rules: Less sugar is more flavor
At the outset, cobblers and their kin were naturally low in sugar, and palates were accustomed to the natural sweetness of fruit, which might have been sweetened with just a little sugar, honey or maple syrup. As sugar became more widely available, the national sweet tooth exponentially increased, and recipes began to echo this addiction. If you look at a cake, cookie or cobbler recipe from the late 19th century, you will find far less sugar than in those of the late 20th century.
In giving these recipes a contemporary, less-sugary reboot, it was a cinch to go back to their roots and not only reduce the sugar but also find little hacks to bring out the natural sweetness of the fruit.
One trick was to precook the fruit to concentrate the sweetness. This was a breeze in the Strawberry Roasted Rhubarb Crisp, as you just scatter the rhubarb on a baking sheet with a trace of sugar and roast it to a deep-flavored, tart sweetness before adding it to the rest of the ingredients.
In other cases, using honey in place of some of the sugar helped to reduce the overall sugar. Sugar helps fruit thicken, which you can compensate for by adding a touch of thickener, such as cornstarch or arrowroot, which is a bit more neutral in taste. Another trick I relied on was a sprinkling a scant tablespoon of turbinado sugar on top of the Peach Apricot Buttermilk Cobbler. That small amount made the cobbler a touch sweeter, sure, but also added a beautiful sparkle to the top.
Fresh fruit is always preferable, but if you make these recipes in the winter, frozen fruit (not defrosted) will work. With blueberries, I prefer to use cultivated berries, which have more pulp and make fruitier fillings. But you can also throw in a handful of wild blueberries to add a little zing.
This style of baking is just the thing when you’re pressed for time and have an overflow of farm-stand fruit — be it ripe plums, blushing rhubarb, juicy peaches, nectarines or jewel-like berries begging to be put into service. Cobblers and crisps are essentially a baker’s mix-and-match game of a fruit filling and topping. And they’re equal opportunity fare for both confident and casual bakers. So, find a favorite fruit, match a topping and enjoy your wholesome — but still decadent — dessert.