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Easier Than Pie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 20 years ago, the story goes, a mysterious dessert appeared on a White House dinner menu: bette brune. It turned out to be plain old apple brown betty under a Frenchified name.

The real surprise is that brown betty would show up on a fancy menu at all. It belongs to a tribe of decidedly informal desserts that have been called spoon pies (they lack a bottom crust--or any bit of real pie crust, in fact--so a pie server isn’t much use).

They’re comfortable, unpretentious, old-time Yankee dishes, and there’s no sophisticating them. Probably for this reason, leading cookbook writers like Fannie Farmer and Mrs. A.S. Lincoln pointedly ignored them at the turn of the century, when these desserts were more common than they are today.

They form an extended family classified according to their toppings. There’s the biscuit side of the clan (cobblers, slumps, grunts and pandowdies), the cottage pudding side (buckles and upside-down cakes, which are more like cakes than pies) and their kin, the streusel-topped crisps. And let’s not forget dear aunt Betty, who doesn’t have a special topping at all.

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They originated in New England, which explains why many of them call for Yankee sweetening ingredients like molasses or maple syrup. Several have spread around the country, so we all know about peach cobbler--or think we do. Crisp and some of the others are reasonably familiar. But grunt, slump and buckle have never really left their New England homes and definitely sound like uncouth country cousins.

Until you try some of them, that is. Nothing beats a good berry buckle.

COBBLER

“Cobbler” is one of those words, like “skillet,” that sound ineffably warm and homey to us. This may be why so many sins have been committed in its name, such as treating it as just another word for pie.

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Southerners are particularly guilty on that score. Some make real cobblers, but a lot have apparently decided that “cobbler” is the name you give pie when it has a peach filling. Mrs. S.R. Dull’s classic “Southern Cooking” actually gives a recipe titled “Peach Pie, or Cobbler.”

But the South has redeemed itself by coming up with the two-crust cobbler. In this fine invention, you bake half the cobbler until the topping (whether it’s a standard pie crust or a real cobbler topping) is done, then you put the rest of the filling and topping on that and cook until the whole thing is done.

Restaurants are more serious sinners. They have been known to serve not only pies but crisps under the name of cobbler. Spago’s pastry department seems to believe “cobbler” just means stewed fruit, to which you can do anything you want--sandwich it with shortcake, even top it with shredded filo.

Properly speaking, though, cobbler is fruit baked with spoonfuls of biscuit dough on top. The dough was thought to resemble cobblestones when it rose, hence the name “cobbler.” In effect, a cobbler is stew with dumplings, except that the stew is stewed fruit.

It’s the most versatile of the spoon pies. The filling can be apples, peaches, cherries, rhubarb, any sort of berry--in short, any fruit that can go into pie. In “The Supper Book,” Marion Cunningham gives a recipe for a root vegetable cobbler, though it’s not a dessert.

The topping is baking powder biscuit dough, sometimes sweetened and enriched with cream or extra shortening, which turns it into a sort of shortcake. When these richer doughs are used, they’re often rolled out like pie crust, rather than being dropped on the fruit like dumplings.

Some cooks put the fruit on top of the biscuit dough and cover the whole thing with water. Magically, the biscuit floats up and envelops the fruit. Another trick that goes back to the 19th century is to set a teacup upside-down in the baking dish before putting in the fruit and the topping. When the cobbler is done, you invert it on a plate and presto--the cup is full of syrup (a lot of cobbler recipes make for a rather liquid fruit layer), which you pass as a sauce.

PANDOWDY

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Pandowdy is the same as cobbler, except that the biscuit dough is always rolled out like a pie crust. When the biscuit is about done, or sometimes right at the start, you break it up or gash it in several places--a process known as “dowdying"--so that the fruit juices can bubble up and make for a crisp, fruit-splashed biscuit crust.

Or at least you’re supposed to. A lot of pandowdies are really just cobblers with the rolled-type crust. There are even recipes in which the baking pan is covered with slices of bread dipped in butter, with more bread laid on top of the fruit, making a sort of charlotte. For shame!

GRUNT

A grunt is basically a steamed cobbler. The biscuit topping is often quite thick, and the steaming gives it a moister texture, more like cake than anything remotely resembling biscuits or pie crust, particularly since no browning takes place. Grunts are often served upside-down, which makes them look like cake.

Grunts are pretty substantial. Originally they were considered a breakfast food in New England, and they still feel like something you might want to eat before facing a day’s labor in the fields.

SLUMP

Slump is the family member that’s most confused about its identity. Sometimes it’s baked like a cobbler (very often served upside-down), but sometimes it’s steamed like a grunt, though the butter may be incorporated into the fruit filling rather than in the biscuit. Sometimes it has a bottom as well as a top crust of biscuit dough. An apple slump recipe from a 1947 cookbook ends, “Remove the biscuits and pour over them the applesauce,” which suggests how very humble this dessert can be.

An extraordinary recipe appeared in “Pentucket Housewife,” published by the Ladies of the First Baptist Church of Haverhill, Mass., in 1883: “Fill a large bean pot with tart quartered apples. Add molasses to nearly cover them and a teaspoon of allspice, and cover with brown bread.” New England brown bread is made by steaming a molasses-sweetened dough of cornmeal and rye, so it made sense to steam the bread right there with the apples. The whole thing was baked three hours, then the bread was cut into the apples and baked half an hour longer.

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Slump may have gotten its name because it doesn’t hold its shape on the plate. But what about grunt? Some say it makes little grunting noises while it steams. A favorite New England explanation is that when farm women served either of these two desserts to their husbands, they’d grunt--and then go out on the front porch and slump for the rest of the day.

CRISP, CRUMBLE AND CRUNCH

These are the simplest spoon pies of all, just sweetened fruit baked with a streusel topping of butter, flour, sugar and spices. Some crisps have a little oatmeal in the topping. If you want to make the distinction absolute, call a crisp made with all-flour streusel a crumble and one with oatmeal in it a crunch.

BUCKLE

Cottage pudding desserts use much the same ingredients as the biscuit side of the spoon pie family, but the ingredients are put together differently. Instead of being cut into the flour, the butter or other shortening is creamed with sugar, then mixed with an egg. The flour and baking powder are added to it alternately with milk. Instead of coming out light and biscuit-like, it turns into a crumbly textured cake.

To make a buckle, you mix fruit (usually berries) into the pudding dough and bake it, usually with a streusel topping. The result is like a rich, fruity coffee cake. In some recipes, the fruit is arranged on top of the dough and sinks into it in baking. There’s no persuasive explanation for the name “buckle,” though maybe people thought it looks as if it’s buckling when the fruit sinks.

UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

This familiar cake puts the fruit on the bottom of a Dutch oven or heavy skillet and the cottage pudding on top of the fruit. Being in direct contact with the metal, the fruit browns somewhat by the time the cake is done. As the name indicates, it’s served upside-down, like slumps, grunts and some cobblers.

BROWN BETTY

Here there is rarely anything like a crust. The fruit is layered with bread crumbs or cubes of bread and slipped into the oven, sometimes with the addition of a streusel topping. Brown betty has been described as bread pudding made with fruit instead of eggs.

The fruit is nearly always apples, but other fruits can be used, such as bananas or rhubarb. In the latter case, for an obvious reason, it’s usually not called brown betty.

All these dishes go well with--practically cry out for--a bit of cream, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Because they don’t require pie crusts, they’re all a good deal less exacting than pie, and a lot of their popularity has been attributed to their convenience for the cook. But they have an irresistible warmth and charm in their own right.

The main thing anybody has ever had against them is that they don’t seem like company food. Of course that might change: Some White House chef might come up with a French translation of “blueberry grunt.”

APPLE BROWN BETTY

1 cup coarse dry bread crumbs

2 tablespoons melted butter

2 cups chopped peeled tart apples

1/2 cup maple syrup

Juice and grated peel of 1/2 lemon

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 cup cider

From “Seasoned With Love at Easton Lutheran Church” (Easton House, Cranston, RI), reprinted in “Hometown Cooking in New England,” compiled from community cookbooks by Sandra J. Tyler (Yankee Books, 1994).

Mix bread crumbs with butter and sprinkle few crumbs on bottom of 10-inch pie plate. Cover with 1/2 apples, 1/4 cup syrup, 1/2 lemon juice, 1/2 rind, 1/2 cinnamon, 1/2 nutmeg and 1/2 buttered crumbs. Repeat with remaining apples, syrup, juice, rind, cinnamon, nutmeg and crumbs. Pour cider over top and bake at 350 degrees until brown and crusty, about 30 minutes.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

199 calories; 166 mg sodium; 11 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.30 gram fiber.

EASY FRUIT COBBLER

BISCUIT TOPPING

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup milk

FRUIT FILLING

2 cups berries, pitted cherries or peeled and quartered peaches

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 1/2 cups water

This recipe may startle a lot of cobbler bakers because you put the fruit on top of the biscuit, then pour a lot of water over the whole shebang. But the biscuit rises as it bakes and the water ends up as a lot of light syrup on the bottom. The same tactic is sometimes met with in buckle recipes. From “Applehood and Motherpie, Handpicked Recipes From Upstate New York” (Junior League of Rochester, 1981).

BISCUIT TOPPING

Cream butter and sugar together. Sift together flour, salt and baking powder. Add to butter alternately with milk. Pour into shallow greased 2-quart baking dish.

FRUIT FILLING

Spoon 2 cups fruit over Biscuit Topping batter. Sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon and water. Bake at 375 degrees until set and light brown on top, 45 to 50 minutes. Fruit will sink.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

260 calories; 328 mg sodium; 22 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 44 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.32 gram fiber.

WILD BLUEBERRY BUCKLE

BUCKLE

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup vegetable shortening

1 egg

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup milk

2 cups blueberries

STREUSEL

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/3 cup flour

1/4 cup butter

With its crunchy streusel topping, this is like a light, rich coffeecake full of fruit. It was our favorite among the recipes tested in The Times Test Kitchen and disappeared within minutes. The recipe is from “The Jordan Collection of New England Cookery” (Jordan Hospital Club, Plymouth, Mass., 1976).

BUCKLE

Cream sugar and shortening by beating until fluffy, then beat in egg. Sift together flour, salt and baking powder and add to shortening alternately with milk. Blend in blueberries and pour into buttered and floured 10x6-inch baking dish.

STREUSEL

Mix sugar, cinnamon, flour and butter and sprinkle over top of buckle. Bake at 375 degrees until top is browned, about 45 minutes.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

517 calories; 440 mg sodium; 58 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 84 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.76 gram fiber.

APPLE PANDOWDY

Sugar

1/4 cup dark molasses

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

9 tart cooking apples, peeled, cored and sliced 1/2-inch thick (about 6 cups)

2 cups flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup whipping cream plus extra for serving

1 tablespoon butter, softened

As it appeared in “Time-Life Foods of the World Series American Cooking: New England,” this is one of the cobbler-like pandowdies. To dowdy it properly, break up the crust after it’s baked 30 minutes and return it to the oven.

Mix 1/3 cup sugar, molasses, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg in large bowl. Add apple slices and stir to coat.

Sift together flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix in enough cream to make smooth dough. Knead until dough can be gathered into compact ball, 3 to 4 minutes. On floured work surface, roll out dough into rough 12x8-inch rectangle about 1/4-inch thick.

Butter 10-inch skillet. Spread apple mixture evenly over bottom. Roll dough around rolling pin and carefully unroll over dish. Cut excess dough from edges, leaving 1/2-inch overhang all around outside rim. Bake at 350 degrees until crust is puffed and golden brown, about 45 minutes.

Serve warm, accompanied by additional whipping cream, if desired.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving, without additional cream, contains about:

324 calories; 412 mg sodium; 45 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 47 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.54 gram fiber.

BERRY GRUNT “OLD NANTUCKET”

1 pint berries or cherries

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons butter

3/4 cup milk

This recipe is adapted from “The Cape Cod Cookbook” by Suzanne Cary Gruver (Little, Brown, 1930). The original remarks, “On no account must the water stop boiling as this would cause the dough to fall.”

Cook fruit in water until softened. Add sugar.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Cut butter in until mealy. Add milk to make batter. Pour over fruit.

Cover pot tightly and set in larger pot of boiling water to steam 45 minutes. To serve, set plate upside down on mouth of pot and invert.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

164 calories; 366 mg sodium; 6 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 32 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.37 gram fiber.


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