Fruit crisps can be the best friend a cook ever had. Pulse together butter, flour and sugar in a food processor, and scatter the crumbs over cut-up fruit. Bake. Instant dessert.
The only problem with most fruit crisps is that they just aren't very crisp. That crumbly "crisp" topping soaks up cooking juices from the fruit and turns sludgy. Not anymore, thanks to Jim Dodge. As further evidence that even the simplest dish can be improved upon by a smart cook, he's got a technique for fruit crisps that guarantees they will be, well, crisp.
Newcomers might not know who Dodge is. He's now the director of special culinary programs for Bon Appetit Management Co., which runs corporate, museum and university restaurants, dining halls and coffee shops all over the country. But back in the 1970s and '80s, he was the pastry chef at San Francisco's Stanford Court Hotel when that was the address of choice for every visiting food luminary. James Beard and Julia Child would stay for weeks at a time. His 1987 book, "The American Baker," is a classic, and he was featured in Child's television series "Baking With Julia."
So what does Dodge do that makes his crisps so different? Rather than just scattering the crumbs, he gathers them into a rough dough ball, then breaks off little chunks to distribute over the fruit. This way the dough sits up on top and doesn't absorb as much of the cooking juices. The topping browns better and, most important, stays truly crisp.
For most crisps, you can start with a ratio of equal parts sugar and flour and half that amount of butter — in other words, 1 cup of flour, 1 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of butter (as in pie dough, the butter should be very cold to keep it from smearing). Given that ratio, there's room for variation. You can use granulated sugar, which has a simpler, more straightforward sweetness that would be good with delicately flavored fruit, or you can use light brown sugar, which has a touch of molasses bitterness that can balance more forward flavors.
Instead of using just flour, you can add nuts — either ground or in bigger pieces — and oatmeal too (rolled oats, of course, not steel cut). Dodge recommends adding a minimum of 1/3 cup for every cup of flour. With nuts that have been chopped or sliced rather than ground, knead them along with the crumbs into the dough ball to help keep their integrity.
You can add other flavorings too: warm spices, such as ground cloves, ginger or cinnamon, or citrus zest. You can also vary the way the fruit is treated. Especially if you're using light brown sugar in the topping, granulated sugar will let the fruit flavor shine through more clearly. But light or even dark brown sugar could be used with some assertive fruits, such as pineapples. Or replace part of the sugar with honey for a slightly bitter, floral sweetness.
The choice of thickeners makes a difference. Flour is commonly used, but, because it is an unrefined starch, it makes the filling cloudy. Cornstarch is refined, so the fruit juices stay clear and shiny. Start with a ratio of about 1 teaspoon cornstarch per cup of cut fruit. Juicy fruits such as strawberries will take a little more; fruits that are high in pectin, such as apples and apricots, will take a little less.
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Dodge prefers to thicken with tapioca starch, which can be found in Asian markets. He says it provides a clear gel without adding flavor, which he says cornstarch can. Remember that starches differ in their thickening abilities, so if you're substituting, you'll need to experiment to find the ratio that works best. And remember that you'll need to add a little more to make up for any liquid you've added to the fruit — honey or fruit juices.
One perfect technique and an almost endless series of options. A cook's best friend just got better.