No regrets

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.

Serves 8.


Cristie said...

I love cooking with oats (but despise oatmeal - go figure), so I'm always on the look-out for a tasty oat recipe. The crumble looks yummy. Will likely substitute peaches for the apricots. Once ate too many apricots. What a pity. Thanks for the recipe.

Char said...

sounds so delish. no peeling? just making sure

linda said...

so glad to be baking/cooking with you jess!
it feels good...

Jess said...

Cristie - I know what you mean. I once overdosed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and it took me years - years - before I could look one in the eye. Just a thought, though: The apricot is a very different animal once it's baked. Perhaps you might be able to handle apricots and, dare I say, even enjoy them, in this crumble?

Char - Nope, no peeling. Nice, eh? Enjoy.

Thanks so much, Linda! I feel the same.

radish said...

Oh a crumble! I, for one, never eschew a crumble - rustic desserts are the best. especially with stone fruit. especially in the height of summer. I can't wait to hear what you thought of my birth city - I sure hope you enjoyed it.

squirrelbread said...

an entirely new dessert -- incredible! may have to hunt down some apricots for this. it must be the season for recipes tasting of oatmeal cookie [http://squirrelbread.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/oatmeal-raisin-cookie-ice-cream/].



Jess said...

radish - You know, I've had a few fancy desserts at the end of some meals out lately, and I'd take a bowl of good crumble over every last one of them. More on St. Petersburg soon!

squirrelbread - Thanks for the link! That's some very fine looking ice cream you've got there.

El said...

Very humorous description of crumble and no- my eyes didn't glaze over. How could they when we're discussing dessert (or breakfast for that matter). It looks delicious. Glad you're having a great time!

janna said...

This looks wonderful! I love apricots in any form and oatmeal, too! Can't wait to try it!

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

I think the crumble sounds lovely. Maybe you could start to refer to it as a crumblé (crumb-lay) to sex it up a bit. Great post!

Susannah said...

Jess, I am living vicariously through you and loving the peek at Berlin you're giving us. I lived in Europe several years ago and regret never making it there. Thanks for the recipe--sadly I have yet to find a good apricot here in Nashville, but perhaps I'll give it another go in order to try this.

Adrienne said...

As I mentioned on twitter, I used your topping but put it on a mix of peaches, nectarines and plums (cleaning out the freezer to make room for this year's fruit!). It really is wonderful - like a cookie, like oatmeal, wonderful with yogurt for breakfast. Thanks for a great recipe!

Rogue Unicorn said...

One of my most favorite desserts is a plum crumble (plumbs tossed with red wine and vanilla, topped with nutmeg and orange zest laced oatmeal crumble), so I find crumbles infinitely interesting. Around here apricot season is too short to make crumbles. You eat as many as you can as fast as you can before they all disappear.
St. Petersburg sounds wonderful, though somehow I can't quite imagine it being summer there. When I picture it in my head it's always covered in snow, no matter what time of year.

Rosiecat said...

I love the pictures of your adopted Berlin kitchen! I've never had a fresh apricot, nor have I ever baked fresh apricots, but gosh darnit, I'm going to do it--I'm going to make your crumble. Will report back.

Kasey said...

This crumble looks like it's totally up my ally--I know they can be hit or miss, but a great crumble is a GREAT crumble. So glad to see new posts from you!

Claiborne said...

Looks like a perfectly acceptable breakfast to me-with some Greek yogurt, maybe downright healthy? Thanks for the apricot goodness-I very much enjoy your posts!

Jess said...

El - Thanks! I'm totally with you, of course, on what makes for riveting conversation.

Janna - I hope you'll like it as much as I do.

A Plum By Any Other Name - Crumblé! Yes! I just shared that with Eli and he agrees: It's perfect.

Susannah - I'm so happy to hear that you're enjoying these Berlin posts. Though I realized today that I haven't even gotten us out the door of our apartment yet! I'll have to remedy that, soon. I'm fortunate to have a ready supply of very fine apricots here, but the truth is, even less-than-perfect apricots do special things when baked. If you can find moderately good apricots, I think you might be set for this crumble. (Or, I should say, "crumblé?")

Adrienne - You have no idea how happy it makes me to hear that you tried out this topping and liked it! (There was fist pumping. That's how happy.) I tried one of the earlier, less successful incarnations of this crumble with yogurt. It's a winning combination, I agree.

Rogue Unicorn - Whoa. Now that sounds like a special crumble. Come to think of it, I don't think I ate a single apricot when I was living in Jerusalem. When is the season there, anyway? As for St. P, we actually had a couple of days that were quite hot, indeed. I'll be sharing some photos soon once I'm back somewhere with reliable and speedy internet access.

Rosiecat - Thanks! This apartment is really quite a find. We're very lucky. You know, the apricot may be the one fruit that doesn't particularly excite me when fresh, but that destroys me - in the best possible way - when cooked. Apricot pie, apricot jam, apricot butter... So good. I have a hunch that the baked apricot could be big for you, Rosiecat. Please do report back!

Kasey - Exactly! I couldn't have said it better myself. (Thanks for the welcome back!)

Claiborne - You don't have to convince me! Thank you. It's so nice to know that you like what you see here.

molly said...

Oh, GOODNESS, where oh where are Ohio's apricots? Peaches may have to do, because, I couldn't agree more, a crumble is about as good as it gets.

Now off with you, to enjoy all those onion domes!

Martha said...

Jess, Living in Italy I have that same butter problem. I finally figured out that 500 grams was close to l pound. So I just cut the 500 gram block into quarters and call each one a stick. Seems to work okay. Blueberries have been on sale here, so along with peaches, we have been having a crumble every week. My husband's favorite breakfast. I'll try your topping next.

Clarice said...

I never tire of crumble recipes. I'm glad to know others eat these fruity wonders for breakfast! I've been making your Everything or Anything Fruit Pie with whatever fruit we have, and look forward to doing the same here (I think we're well past apricot season, but we have peaches for sure!)

Jess said...

Molly - It sounds like Adrienne, from up above, had some luck with peaches in this recipe. I'm sure it will be splendid. (Though I do have to say, against a tangy baked apricot, this topping really pops. If you do find yourself in the company of apricots, this year or next, come back to this one!)

Martha - A crumble a week! That sounds like excellent pacing. Thanks for weighing in (ha!) on the butter issue. You're right that 125g of butter is close to a stick. A stick is 113g, or 8 tablespoons of butter, and 125g is somewhere between 8 and 9 (closer to 9) tablespoons of butter. I don't think that a tablespoon one way or another will matter in a recipe like this one. Have you tried your substitution in more temperamental recipes for things like cakes, and if so, have they tolerated the variation?

Clarice - So much crumble love here! I'm so happy to hear that you've been enjoying that pie recipe. Do you know that I haven't made a single pie yet this season?! Been too busy with crumble, I suppose.

Martha said...

Jess- When we lived in Virginia I used to make cakes all the time. Here the oven I have to use is wacky and takes forever to heat up. So I have only made your olive oil citrus cake which everyone loves. But I do use this butter method with cookies and it works okay with them. Thanks for these more precise measurements. In future I might shave a bit off before dividing the stick.

Jess said...

Good to know, Martha. Thanks! And I'm happy to hear that you've been enjoying that olive oil citrus cake. I love that recipe. Bummer about your oven, though I suspect that getting to live in ITALY makes up for it, no?

Cynthia said...

I've been wanting to make a crumble, and been looking for a good recipe. But as you know, no good apricots here! Peaches will have to do. Think it should be about the same?

Jess said...

Hi, Cynthia. Yes, I think it will be very good with peaches. Adrienne, up above, tried it, and she was pleased with the results. But I find that the texture and flavor of a baked apricot is extraordinary. There is nothing quite like it. I'd say go for the peaches for now, but do try it with apricots one day if you can manage to get your hands on them.

Aunt Franci said...

yummy! looks delicious!!!!

Jess said...

Thanks, Aunt Franci. It was.

megan said...

Yes, why yes it was, lucky me! Yesterday was a year here in LA, after a different brilliant send-off, by you guys.

Happy new year to all!


Jess said...

I can't believe it has already been a year, Megan. Wild. xo.