Of this I am certain: The surest way to break in a home is to turn on the oven. I could say a lot more about this, but I have other things on my mind today, namely, how to get you, a pound and a half of apricots, and a sack of oats into the kitchen as soon as possible.
The thing is, I’m worried that today’s recipe might be a tough sell. It’s a crumble. Did your eyes just glaze over when you read that word? I thought so. People have a hard time getting excited about crumbles. Often billed as little more than the lazy man’s strategy for making it through a basket of rapidly ripening peaches, or ridding the freezer of last season’s berries, crumble is the only homemade dessert I can think of that consistently comes shackled to an apology, an excuse, or some variation thereof. “I was short on time, so I just made a crumble.” Just. Ouch. Crumble is as simple as it gets, it’s true. It rivals the clafoutis, I think, for the title of humblest fruit dessert. But unlike clafoutis, which follows the same dump and bake method, it lacks a fancy French name to dress it up. By comparison, a dessert whose name means “to fall apart” doesn’t stand a chance.
I may be a crumble enthusiast, but I have a message for all of you yawn-stifling readers out there: I totally get it. Too often, crumble is just another word for boring-on-a-plate. At its worst, it’s is a soupy, soggy-topped mess. It’s too light on the topping, or too heavy. It’s gummy, or gloppy, or so sweet it makes your tongue curl. But at its best – which, as you might guess, is where we’re headed here – it’s a masterpiece. A well-executed crumble belongs at the very height of the dessert pyramid. It hits the fruit to sugar ratio spot on, caramelizes slightly in all the right places, and carries with it the promise of vanilla-flecked ice cream melting into bubbling fruit. That hot-cold combination slays me every time. A crumble done right is no clean-out-the-freezer afterthought, people. It’s a dessert worth planning for.
Broadly speaking, most crumbles fall into one of two categories, based on the quality of their topping. There’s the flour-crumbed, streusel-like variety, and then there’s the oaty kind which, if all goes well, tastes something like buttery granola. I’m not sure which of the two I was after when I turned on our oven for the first time several days into our Berlin stay. It was the first cool-ish night after a string of scorchers and, no longer fearing that our flat might spontaneously burst into flames were the temperature to creep even a single degree higher, I lit the pilot and sprang into action. It felt urgent. This was no time for recipes, and certainly no time for figuring out the equivalence between 125 grams of butter and the sticks and tablespoons to which I am accustomed. I eyed the basket of apricots from the farmers’ market, dug out the flour, sugar, and oats, and called Eli over to tap out a bit more of one ingredient or another, as I worked the block of butter into the growing heap with my hands. It was, like so many crumbles (see “strategies,” “apologies,” and “excuses,” above), a slapdash affair, but one that would prove worthy of fine-tuning.
What emerged from the oven was a specimen cloaked in a crumbly something that resembled neither streusel nor granola. Out it went to the balcony to cool, and soon after, we followed, mugs and spoons in hand. The apricots had gone all bold and buttery, as apricots do. They had brightened in color and flavor, and melted into rich, almost spreadable versions of themselves. I leaned against the wall, drew my knees up to my chin, and we ate in the kind of silence that first bites of something new and powerfully delicious have been known to inspire. Somewhere in that silence I realized that I had tasted this topping in another form many times, but before I could get the words out, Eli said it for me: “Oatmeal cookies!” Exactly. And it makes perfect sense. Whether they’re flour- or oat-based, whether the butter is cut into cubes and rubbed into the dry ingredients, or melted and poured, most crumble toppings go into the oven rather dry and, well, crumbly. This topping is different. Uncooked, it's wetter than any crumble I’ve crumbled before, thick enough to hold its shape when squeezed together in the palm of your hand, but still dry enough to form many a satisfying clump. It is, in effect, an eggless oatmeal cookie dough slapped onto a dish of unsuspecting apricots where a more traditional crumble topping might have been.
I set out to replicate it the following week, and to ramp up that oatmeal cookie feeling while I was at it. It took me three tries to get it just right, but I have no regrets. After an attempt that came out waaay too sweet, and one that was overly chewy and begging for salt, I finally nailed it. I pulled the winning dish out of the oven one morning last week, minutes before Eli and I left for St. Petersburg (did I tell you I’m in St. Petersburg? I’m in St. Petersburg!). Eli took out the ice cream; our friend, Megan, who was visiting, grabbed the spoons; and I climbed up on the table to snap these photos for you. We all have to do our parts. Then, albeit rather hurriedly – we had a flight to catch, you know – we feasted. I’m a big supporter of crumble for breakfast in any case, but with so much fruit, so many oats, and so little sugar (just half a cup in the whole thing!), this particular crumble for breakfast felt practically virtuous. It was the perfect send-off.
Apricot Oatmeal Cookie Crumble
A brief note about ingredients: Here in Berlin, butter comes in 125 (and 250) gram blocks. I have provided an approximate measurement for the butter in tablespoons, and once I’m back in the States, I’ll come up with something more precise for American kitchens. In the meantime, I have a feeling that the crumble topping will easily tolerate slight variations in butter content, so don’t worry too much about just how scant that “scant tablespoon” should be. I bet that an even eight or nine tablespoons will do the trick. I’ll try both when I get home, and report back. If you happen to give it a go one way or another, please do let us know how you fare. Also, sucanat is the closest thing to brown sugar that I can find here. You can use either one for this recipe.
For the fruit:
1 ½ lbs. (about 15) ripe apricots
1 T. cornstarch
For the topping:
1 ½ c. oats
¾ c. flour
½ t. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. baking powder
½ c. sucanat or brown sugar
125g or one stick (8 tablespoons) plus one scant tablespoon cold butter, cubed
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Wash and dry the apricots, and use your fingers to break them in half. Remove the pits, and place the apricot halves into a medium baking dish. Sprinkle them with the cornstarch, and gently stir to coat. Set aside.
Combine the oats, flour, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, and sugar in a bowl, and blend well. Add the cubed butter, and rub it into the dry ingredients with your fingertips. Drop the topping evenly over the apricots, and bake at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes, until the apricot juices are bubbling, and the crumble is lightly golden. To encourage the topping to crisp and darken an additional shade, turn the heat up to 400 degrees, and bake for an extra 10 minutes. Don’t be alarmed if the topping still seems somewhat chewy when you remove the crumble from the oven. Like oatmeal cookies, it will firm up as it cools.
Posted by Jess