“IT’S all about the fruit,” says Sherry Yard, executive pastry chef at Spago. “A crumble should maintain the integrity of the fruit.”
It should -- and it does. These days L.A.'s smartest pastry chefs are taking cobblers and crisps and crumbles to new heights.
The best of them are of the moment in more ways than one. They capture the essence of what spring has to offer right now: late apples and pears, early berries, rhubarb, mandarins, even fennel. These aren’t restrained or effete versions of pie interruptus. They’re buttery-crusted, fruit-brimming desserts that have their own complex character. The ante is upped with careful technique and attention to ingredients resulting in crisper crusts, purer-tasting fruit and perfectly balanced flavor and proportions.
The strawberry rhubarb crisp at Literati II on the Westside is a big bowl of a crisp, filled with red, jammy fruit and covered with a crunchy-sweet crust. It’s a study in contrasts and complements. A crunchy topping balanced with soft, luscious fruit; sweet strawberries with tart rhubarb; served warm from the oven with cool, velvety strawberry ice cream; creme fraiche sherbet adds a tangy, creamy counterpoint.
“People may want to be experimental through three-quarters of the meal, but for dessert they turn to something homey, comfortable, familiar,” says Nancy Silverton, former co-owner and pastry chef of Campanile restaurant and founder of La Brea Bakery. And “even though it’s homey, [a crisp or cobbler] can have an elegant edge to it.”
Yard’s dessert certainly does. It’s jam-packed with Pink Lady apples, fennel and rhubarb, flavored with rose water and orange zest, topped with a twice-baked almondy crumble and served with buttermilk sherbet and a rhubarb vanilla bean sauce.
“I use no spices because I want the flavors of the fruit to come out,” Yard says. Fennel in a dessert may sound odd, but its delicate anise flavor complements that sweet-tart mix of apples and rhubarb. The result is brilliant.
A number of this year’s cobblers and crisps have roots that go back to Silverton. These fruit desserts have long been a tradition at Campanile, says former pastry chef Kimberly Boyce. She, like a number of L.A. pastry chefs, including Kimberly Sklar at Literati II and Elizabeth Belkind at Grace, worked there in Silverton’s kitchen.
“You can draw lines from the stuff we learned,” Boyce says. “An appreciation for ingredients and seasonality. A natural, elegant style that has layers of flavor and texture. We learned to really extend the flavor of whatever fruit we’re using.”
That influence makes its appearance in Sklar’s strawberry rhubarb crisp. Flavor is played upon flavor, strawberries for the filling, a strawberry ice cream, even slices of dried strawberry that garnish the dish.
What distinguishes a cobbler from a crisp from a crumble is the topping, but the distinctions are applied loosely and hence cause a lot of debate. Adding to the confusion are other variations of cobbler (itself a variation of pie) such as slumps, grunts, pandowdies, buckles and betties. According to Silverton in her book “Pastries From the La Brea Bakery,” which includes a chapter on cobblers, they are “always topped with dough, whether it’s firm enough to roll, soft enough to drop, or thin enough to pour.”
Crisps and crumbles are topped with a streusel mixture of butter, flour and sugar. A crisp might have nuts, a crumble oats.
The term buckle often seems to be used mistakenly to describe any cobbler whose topping comes out lumpy or “buckled” after baking -- which would be just about any of them. But traditionally, for a buckle, fruit is baked into a hefty amount of dough and topped with streusel. It’s more like a coffee cake.
Pastry chef Verite Mazzola at Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City uses juicy-fleshed, smooth-textured Comice pears in her warm pear buckle. She says Boscs probably will replace the Comices soon, but she’ll use them in the same way.
Her “buckle” is actually a cobbler with a rolled-out crust, though the term seems appropriate when she explains that the dough is rolled out a bit smaller than the gratin dish and is delicate enough that it buckles while in the oven.
“People sometimes go overboard with a thick, heavy crust,” she says. “I didn’t want people to feel overwhelmed by it.”
A supple crust from a dough made with equal amounts of butter and cream cheese sits atop a layer of warm sliced pears. In each bite there’s tender pear and lightly sweet crust with a terrific texture. It’s topped with a quenelle of tangerine cream, a whipped cream flavored with tangerine zest and juice. Although Satsumas are nearly gone, other mandarin varieties such as Tom’s Terrific, Perfection and Page are going strong.
With these desserts, using fruit at its seasonal peak is key. That’s “when you get the most balance in taste, pectin, sugar and water,” says Literati II’s Sklar. Spooning into that crisp at Literati II is like unearthing spring, fragrant with the season’s rhubarb and strawberries.
Right now we’re heading straight into strawberries’ peak, mid-April to May, which is also prime time for field-grown rhubarb. Several varieties of strawberries are available at local farmers markets, including the big, sturdy Camarosa and Ventana berries but also the more flavorful and more coveted Seascapes and Gaviotas.
Breanne Varela, pastry chef at A.O.C. and Lucques, is planning her own strawberry rhubarb crisp with a buttermilk sherbet for the menu at A.O.C. She says she’ll fill shallow terra-cotta cazuela (casserole) dishes with rhubarb compote as well as fresh rhubarb and strawberries and top the fruit with a streusel lightly flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg. The desserts are finished in A.O.C.'s wood-burning oven.
For her crisp Sklar uses strawberries and rhubarb in equal amounts -- farmers’ market berries and hot house rhubarb for consistency in color and flavor, she says. The fruit is macerated, its juices mixed with a little creme fraiche.
Although the fruit is what’s consistently touted in the best cobblers, Sklar, like many of these cobbler geniuses, gives the topping added attention. Her crisp is flour and sugar, lightly mixed in with eggs, which she uses as a leavening and to help make it crunchy. Melted butter is poured over the topping right before baking. It turns out golden-crispy, with a wonderful butter flavor.
With cobblers and crisps, it’s all a game of proportion. Although “everything by itself should taste great,” Sklar says, "... we strive for that balance of fruit and topping. We go by how it looks. I would say it’s a 3-to-1 fruit-to-topping ratio. But it’s also about an acid-sugar balance -- that’s what makes it so sophisticated.
Although the harvest for apples and pears peaks in the fall, some of the latest-arriving varieties from Oregon and Washington -- Granny Smith apples and Anjou pears -- also store well and they’ll be tasty into late spring. At Jar in West Hollywood, pastry chef Dahlia Solomon makes a warm apple crisp with Granny Smiths, tart and bright. “They have what I look for in a good apple -- crispy, fresh-tasting and really firm.”
And at Josie in Santa Monica, pastry chef Jonna J. Jensen recently was using local heirloom apples in her crumble but says that will change, possibly to blueberries or blackberries as soon as she can get them. For her crumble, she uses brown sugar, butter and walnuts. The heirloom apples are cubed, dressed with lemon, sugar, a touch of cinnamon, a little bit of flour. “The flour and apples create a little milkiness,” she says. The apples fill a fluted, flaky pate brisee crust. “I love crispy things. I love the contrasts of sweetness, sour, crispy, creamy.”
And there’s more to look forward to. At Grace in West Hollywood, pastry chef Belkind has, for the last two summers, made a peach and pecan-toffee crisp with brown-sugar ice cream. “
For her crisps and cobblers she likes to use several varieties of a single fruit, say, apples, that are at the peak of the season so that “in a simple dish you get a whole spectrum of flavors and textures -- sweet, tart, firm, tender. You can use strawberries, peaches and apricots in the same way.”
But Belkind left Grace last week to work on a new venture. She’s planning to open a restaurant and bakery named June in Los Feliz with Dan Mattern, former chef de cuisine at A.O.C, and Roxana Jullapat, former pastry chef at Lucques and A.O.C.
“We picked the name June because of all the wonderful things there are at that time of year to cook with. The apricots, stone fruits, berries.”
She says she’ll definitely continue to make a crisp. “If I have my way, it will be apricots, because I love them.”