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Forget pie pandemonium, I'm crazy for cobbler

Addie Broyles, Relish Austin

Staff Writer
Austin 360
A cherry grunt is a variation of cobbler that is made on the stovetop. Spoonfuls of dumpling batter are dolloped on top of the fruit mixture.

We are smack dab in the middle of a pie renaissance.

Everyone seems to be playing around with pie crust, making mini pies, pies in jars, pies on sticks, handheld pies, pie milkshakes. You get the idea.

Last week, I even went to an amazing fundraiser called Pies and Pigs for one local pie entrepreneur, Colleen Sommers, who is battling breast cancer and, like many in the food industry, doesn't have health insurance. (I brought a bourbon cherry pie for the celebrity charity auction, which in addition to ticket sales and a silent auction helped bring in about $20,000 for Sommers.)

But amid all this pie craziness, I couldn't stop thinking about cobblers, pie's country cousin that everybody loves, sometimes even more than the labor-intensive pie itself.

That's the beauty of a cobbler. You don't have to roll out the dough. You don't have to have any special lard or even a pie plate, and when measuring ingredients, if you're off by a tablespoon of water, butter or flour or if you have a less-than-perfect technique, the dish will still come together just fine.

What you do need is plenty of beautifully ripe fruit, which we have in abundance right now: Peaches, which according to an informal social media poll seem to be your favorite fruit for cobbling, blackberries (a close second), plums, cherries, apricots, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. Later this year, local apples, figs and pears will come in, giving you a whole new range of options.

The second component of a cobbler is the topping, which can vary widely. In some families, a cobbler is more like a spoon bread, made by pouring a batter to a baking dish and then adding fruit. Others prefer cobblers with biscuit-like dumplings that, when baked, look like a cobbled street.

Fruit, flour, sugar, butter. Seems simple enough, right?

For the most part, cobblers are good, basic desserts that new cooks should try before moving on to harder-to-make sweets, but things start to get complicated when you consider all the variations — usually regional, but sometimes generational — which include, but are not limited to, buckle, grunt, crisp and betty. (See "A Cobbler By Any Other Name" box to brush up on your cobbler vernacular.)

For grins and in an effort to suggest a cobbler recipe that doesn't require turning on your oven in the middle of summer, I decided to try making a stove-top cobbler called a grunt, or a slump, depending on what part of the country you are from and who taught you how to cook.

I found a few grunt recipes online, pitted a pound of cherries with a nifty pitter I found at a garage sale a few years back, pulled out my trusty 8-inch cast iron skillet and got to work.

Stewing the cherries with a little water, sugar and a splash of bourbon was a breeze. I then whipped up a batch of dumplings from a Martha Stewart recipe for a berry grunt, dropped them by the spoonful into the cherries and covered the dish.

Fifteen minutes later, the dumplings had soaked up much of the cherry sauce, and the steam that had condensed into water on the lid made them into a sticky mess. It wasn't exactly what I had hoped for, but served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it tasted better than it looked. Texas bloggers the Crockin' Girls, who recently released their first cookbook, have succeeded in making cobblers in slow cookers, and their favorite is an apple crisp on this page.

I think from here on out, I'll bake my cobblers, either in an oven or in a Dutch oven by a campfire. (Why don't cobblers cooked inside a Dutch oven with a lid end up with sticky dumplings? Because when you place charcoal briquettes on top of the lid and underneath the Dutch oven, the heat cooks the cobbler from the top and the bottom, just like an oven.)

Here are a few other tips to improve your own cobblers:

Don't fear the cornstarch. Fruit, especially berries, has a high water content, and it doesn't hurt to make a slurry with a tablespoon or so of cornstarch and a little of that fruit juice (or water) to help thicken up your cobbler.

Go gluten-free. Most cobbler toppings call for flour, but you can make them wheat-free by using one of the many gluten-free flour mixes available at grocery stores these days instead of traditional flour. (It's usually a one-for-one swap, but double-check the instructions on the packaging.) You can also substitute whole wheat flour for white for up to half of the total amount of flour, and a little cornmeal, as in the pear cobbler recipe on this page, goes a long way to add just the right texture change to keep things interesting.

A little crisp goes a long way. I can't get enough oats, so I've been known to add a little crisp mixture on top of cobblers, even if they already have another dough on top of the fruit. The brown sugar, oats, flour and butter adds another layer of texture.

Cobbler for one. Sometimes, a whole cobbler is just too much, either because you'll be the only one eating it or you only have a handful of fruit on hand. It's easy to make a cobbler for one if you have a single-serve ramekin on hand, and if you don't, you can usually find them — and other once-loved, but inexpensive baking and serving dishes — at local thrift stores. Use a cup (or 1/2 pint) of fruit and cut your favorite cobbler dough/topping recipe in half. You might have a little extra dough, but it's a small loss compared with having to throw out half a pan of uneaten fruit.

Stay up-to-date with the latest food news by following food writer Addie Broyles on Twitter (@broylesa) or on her Relish Austin blog, austin360.com/relishaustin. Contact Addie at 912-2504 or abroyles@statesman.com.

A cobblerby any other name

When is a cobbler a cake? What's the difference between a slump and a sonker? If you bake a grunt instead of cooking it on the stove, is it still a grunt? Does anyone still make pandowdies?

Cobblers in their various forms have been around for centuries, and as generations of Americans have crisscrossed the country with our spattered recipe cards packed into boxes, the origins of many of theses quirky terms have been lost to history. I'm sure there's some culinary historian somewhere who insists he or she knows the exact definitions of each of these terms, but here's a general guide to help you navigate the wide world of cobblers.

Cobbler: The overarching term to describe a fruit-based dessert topped with biscuit, cake or dumpling.

Crisp: A cobbler that is topped with a streusel-like topping, made with butter, flour and sugar, sometimes nuts and oats.

Crumble: The British term for a crisp, or, in some circles, a crisp without oats or nuts.

Grunt: A cobbler you make on the stove by steaming the biscuit-like dumplings instead of baking them.

Slump: Another name for a grunt.

Sonker: A deep-dish cobbler that originates in North Carolina.

Buckle: A single-layer cake with fruit scattered throughout the batter and then baked. More batter than fruit.

Betty: A baked dish dating back to colonial America that is traditionally made by layering fruit, usually apples, with buttered breadcrumbs (or even graham crackers or stale pound cake.)

Clafouti: A French dessert made by pouring batter over fruit, typically stone fruit like peaches, cherries or plums.

Pandowdy: A cobbler topped with a pie crust, with some of the crust incorporated into the fruit, usually apples.

Slow-Cooker Apple Crisp

There's nothing this Brownwood duo can't cook in a slow cooker. Home cooks Jenna Marwitz and Nicole Sparks have built a massive online following (I bet few others in Brown County can claim more than a half million "likes" on Facebook), and in their first book, you'll find this apple crisp recipe that made both of their all-time top 10 lists at crockingirls.com.

— A.B.

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar, divided

1 tsp. ground cinnamon, divided

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

Pinch salt

1 stick ( 1/2 cup) butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 Tbsp. cornstarch

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

6 cups apple cored, chopped (and peeled if desired)

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

In a medium bowl, mix flour, brown sugar, ½ cup granulated sugar, ½ tsp. cinnamon, nutmeg and salt together in a bowl. Using a fork, a pastry cutter or your fingers, incorporate butter into the mixture until coarse crumbs form. Stir in walnuts and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together remaining cup sugar, cornstarch, ginger and remaining cinnamon.

Place apples in the slow-cooker, then stir in cornstarch mixture and lemon juice. Sprinkle walnut crumb topping over top. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours or low for 4 hours, until apples are tender. After cooking time is complete, uncover to allow the topping to harden for about an hour. Serve with ice cream.

— From ‘The Crockin' Girls Slow Cookin' Companion: Yummy Recipes from Family, Friends, and Our Crockin' Community' by Nicole Sparks and Jenna Marwitz (Five Star Institute, $32.95)

Pear Cobbler with Dried Blueberries and Stone-Ground Corn Biscuits

This recipe from Epicurious.com calls for pears and dried blackberries, but you could adapt it for other fruits by omitting the apple juice and pre-cooking time to soften the fruit. What really makes this dish stand out are the biscuits. The stone-ground cornmeal adds just the right texture, and with only 1/4 cup sugar in the biscuits, they aren't cloyingly sweet, like many cobbler dumplings or cake-like toppings.

For biscuits:

1 cup all purpose flour

2/3 cup stone-ground cornmeal

1/4 cup plus 3 Tbsp. sugar, divided

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. coarse kosher salt

6 Tbsp. ( 3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

2/3 cup chilled heavy whipping cream

For pear filling:

6 lb. firm but ripe pears, peeled, cored, cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces (about 12 cups)

1 cup apple juice

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

3 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 tsp. coarse kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

2 Tbsp. ( 1/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, diced

1 1/2 cups dried wild blueberries

Vanilla ice cream

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, 1/4 cup sugar, baking powder and 1/2 tsp. salt. Using your fingers, rub in the chilled butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in cream until just moistened. Using your hands, form the dough into an 8-inch-long log, and cut log crosswise into eight 1-inch-thick rounds. Spread 3 Tbsp. sugar on plate. Dip 1 cut side of each biscuit into melted butter, then dip buttered side in sugar. Place biscuits, sugared side up, on platter; sprinkle any remaining sugar over top. Cover and chill.

For filling, mix pears with apple juice, lemon juice, cornstarch, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl. Let stand 10 minutes, tossing occasionally. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees and butter a 9-inch-by-13-inch glass baking dish.

Transfer filling to prepared dish, and dot with 2 Tbsp. diced butter. Cover dish with foil, and bake until pears are tender, about 50 minutes. Remove dish from oven and mix in dried blueberries. Place biscuits on top of filling. Continue to bake uncovered until filling is bubbling thickly, biscuits are pale golden, about 35 minutes longer. Cool 30 and serve with ice cream.

— Adapted from a recipe by Nancy Oakes and Pamela Mazzola on Epicurious.com

Mark Bittman's Basic Cobbler Recipe

In the second edition of his landmark cookbook "How To Cook Everything," Mark Bittman shares this blueberry cobbler recipe, which includes instructions so that you can use just about any fruit. (You don't often find melons, grapes, pineapples and other extremely water fruits used in cobblers, but with enough cornstarch, anything is possible, but experiment at your own risk.) I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I use this cookbook more than any other in my collection and would highly recommend buying it if you don't have it already.

— A.B.

4 to 6 cups blueberries or other fruit, washed and well dried, peeled and sliced as necessary

1 cup sugar, or to taste

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for the pan

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

Pinch salt

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Toss the fruit with half the sugar and spread it in a lightly greased 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a food processor and pulse once or twice. Add the butter and process for 10 seconds, until the mixture is well blended. By hand, beat in the egg and vanilla. Drop this mixture onto the fruit by the spoonful; do not spread it out. Bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35 to 45 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.

— From "How To Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman (Wiley, $35)