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When you find yourself with extra strawberries or rhubarb or peaches or plums or apples or, well, I could go on, one smart thing to do is walk over to the kitchen, and see if you have flour, butter, and sugar around.
If so, you’re about 90% of the way to a buckle, a crisp, a crumble, or a cobbler. They’re all wonderful, delicious, and best of all easy ways to turn fruit into dessert.
(I mean real dessert, unless you’re one of those people who maddeningly insists that fruit itself is dessert, in which case, I’m sorry but we can’t be friends.)
What’s the difference between a buckle and a crisp and a crumble and a cobbler? I’m glad you asked!
(There’s more historical detail here. And because these have been made by thousands of grandmothers in hundreds of towns, each with their own treasured assortment of hand-written recipe cards and church cookbooks, the interpretations can vary widely. But I’m giving you a tl;dr.)
Buckles are basically cakes with lots of fruit baked in the middle that cause the top to buckle in the middle. At least historically. The buckles I’ve made have baked pretty evenly. I think of them as cake for pie people.
Crisps and crumbles are terms that are used too interchangeably to meaningfully disentangle. But. Here goes: both involve a layer of fruit baked under a layer of streusel-like topping. Crisps tend to involve oats and/or nuts, the theory being that those toppings get crisp in the oven. Crumbles tend to be a simple mix of flour, butter, and sugar and sometimes a leavening agent like baking powder. But my research shows these boundaries to be porous and mostly meaningless.
Cobblers also involve a layer of fruit baked under some kind of topping. Usually, these days, that’s a biscuit topping. But it’s perhaps the most regionally diverse dessert of the group. There’s a strong contingent in the south that makes them with various types of cake-batter topping. And there’s historical president for using pie dough.
Buckles, Crisps, Crumbles, and Cobblers
Here are some of my favorite easy fruit desserts. They're the kinds of treats that exude a homey, welcoming nonchalance. They're simple to make, flexible with the kinds of fruit you can use, and most of them are amenable to alternative flours.
Almost all of these could be made with another fruit, swapped one-to-one. If you have berries, stone fruit, apples, or pears you just need to remove the pits and, if you like, peel them (which is optional on all of these, though I usually peel my apples before baking).
These are great for bakers of all skill levels. Feel free to play with the spices, or swap in pecans for walnuts or almonds if you prefer.
This crisp is a cinch to put together. Look for oblong Italian plums (sometimes called prune plums) or tiny Damson plums for this--they're my favorite varieties for baking. If you don't want to use raspberries you can use an equal amount of plums. When you melt the butter, you can take the extra step of browning it for more flavor (I usually do)--it brings out the nutty flavor and is really delightful--but it's not necessary.
This strawberry rhubarb crisp is made with a mix of oat flour and old fashioned rolled oats. It's 100% whole grain and gluten free. (If you're making this for someone intolerant to gluten, be sure to look for certified gluten-free oats and oat flour because oats are often processed in facilities that also process wheat and can be cross contaminated.) The topping comes together in a few minutes. I sometimes like to take the extra step of browning the butter when melting it, but I leave that entirely up to you. I like the mixture of strawberries and rhubarb, but you could absolutely make this entirely with rhubarb with no other adjustments to the recipe.
This buckle is a rustic fruit-laden cake with a golden exterior and an almost custardy interior.
The buttermilk helps to tenderized the crumb and adds a tangy note to balance the sweetness of the cake. You can take the extra step of browning the butter when you melt it to add more depth of flavor.
You can adjust the fruit to what you have available. An all rhubarb or all strawberry buckle would be lovely.
The mix of cinnamon, coriander, and ground ginger is particularly nice with the strawberries and rhubarb.
I use pecans in the streusel here, but sliced almonds would also be delicious.
This crisp is so easy to make. The topping comes together quickly and can hang out while you work on the apples
When you melt the butter, you can take the extra step of browning it for more flavor (I usually do)—it brings out the nutty flavor and is really delightful—but it's not necessary.
Feel free to play around with the spices. I love this particular combination, but you can simplify and just use cinnamon or throw in other warm baking spices like nutmeg or cloves.
Use any of your favorite baking apples here. Granny Smith, Braeburn, Mutsu, and Haralson are all good options. A combination of apple varieties works well, too.
This crumble comes together in minutes. The rhubarb gets tossed with sugar and orange zest and topped with a craggy vanilla bean-scented brown butter lid. If you don’t have a vanilla bean on hand or don’t want to drop the cash on one, this will still be delicious though slightly less complex with a teaspoon of vanilla extract mixed in with the brown butter after you take it off the heat. You can substitute your favorite all-purpose gluten free flour mix (I like Cup4Cup and Bobs Red Mill Gluten-Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour) if you’d like to make this gluten free. This is an incredibly flexible recipe. You can skip the orange zest if it’s not your thing, or you can add a pinch of cinnamon or ground ginger if you’re in the mood for it. This is good warm from the oven with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s also great at room temperature (which makes it a good option for a dessert to bring to a late spring/early summer cookout). I also love it cold from the refrigerator. As I said, really flexible.
This recipe works best in 2 cup stovetop and oven safe cookware (such as these mini enameled cast iron dutch ovens), but if you wish to make these in large ramekins or other small baking dishes, you may skip the stove top caramelization step and simply bake them for an extra ten minutes or so. It won’t give you that deep caramel flavor, but it will still be delicious. You may of course, use these techniques with other fruits or with your own favorite crumble or crisp topping. This works best with slightly tart apples that work well for baking. I like to use a mix of apples and in this case used a spigold, a spuree rome, and a macoun, but feel free to use any apples you like.
This peach cobbler is a great way to use up peaches that are a little overripe or imperfect. There's no need to peel the peaches, though if you're sensitive to peach skin you can blanch the peaches in boiling water briefly and then run them under cold water to slip off the skin. This cobbler has a fluffy buttermilk biscuit topping with a bit of cornmeal for a pleasing nubbly texture. I prefer a fine-to-medium grind of cornmeal here rather than a coarse grind here.
This buckle is a rustic fruit-laden cake. It would work with just about any combination of stone fruit or berries. The buttermilk helps to tenderized the crumb and adds a tangy note to balance the sweetness of the cake. You can skip browning the butter if you’re in a hurry, but if you do have the time, I suggest giving it a try. It adds some nice depth of flavor. Peaches should be peeled before going into this–the easiest way to peel very ripe peaches is to blanch them in boiling water for about a minute and then run them under cold water–the skins should just slip off. The skins of most other stone fruits are thin and tender enough that they don’t need peeling. I like to use turbinado (raw) sugar in the streusel topping, but any granulated sugar is fine.