On Monday morning, I sit down to write this column wearing wool socks and a fleece, a Thermos of hot coffee stationed beside my laptop. The temperature dropped deep into the 50s last night, and our house is always slow to shake off the chill. By the weekend, when this issue of The Current hits newsstands — when, perhaps, you’ll venture out, pick up a copy and read these words — we’ll all be in shorts and sundresses, taking our caffeine over ice.
If the meteorologists are right, that is. Weather reports are famously about as accurate as horoscopes: Tomorrow, a mysterious stranger will arrive on your doorstep in the pouring rain. Really? Not that skepticism makes me any wiser. All spring, I’ve been making plans around promised downpours that decide at the last minute to share their blessings with mysterious strangers up in Columbia County instead.
This has been a weird year for expertise. Suddenly, knowledge, training and professional credentials seem to provide especially flimsy protection against life’s uncertainties. At the same time, we are all being called on to recalibrate the value of lived experience, in particular that of certain marginalized Americans.
As most cooks know, credentials only get you so far when it comes to feeding yourself and whoever else sits down with you at mealtime. Hands-on experience is often more valuable, along with a certain roll-with-the-punches equanimity. How else to manage the slew of mysteries and existential dilemmas that arise whenever you set out to make even the simplest treat? Take, for example, the absurd fact that the season for luscious and bountiful fruits coincides exactly with weather antithetical to the baking of pies, tarts, crumbles, etc. What expert came up with that ridiculous idea?
No matter. Bake we must, even when the backyard itself feels like an oven, if only because the fruits demand it.
One long-ago summer when my younger sister was visiting from Texas, she wowed me by rattling off from memory a formula for crumble topping: one cup flour, one cup oats, one cup brown sugar, one cup butter. What a great thing to carry around in your head! I thought, whereupon I wrote it down and immediately forgot it.
Since then, whenever I’ve made crisps and crumbles, I’ve tinkered with her formula, adding spices and nuts, cutting back on the sugar, trying a teaspoon of baking powder to give it loft. I’ve even omitted the oats and called it streusel. All along, I’ve been seeking the perfect crumble topping to make in bulk and keep in the freezer, so as to always have something on hand to top coffee cakes, bars, pies and those pans of random cut-up seasonal fruit I don’t have the wherewithal to turn into proper desserts.
This past winter I finally found the crumble topping of my dreams, hidden in a recipe for banana muffins by pastry chef Elisabeth Pruitt, of San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery. I made a single batch the first time, and thereafter tripled it every time I made it. It’s too complicated a recipe for me to memorize, but I take comfort in knowing that it’s in the freezer, ready to help me cope with life’s many uncertainties.
Today, I hauled it out to lend purpose to a surplus of spring rhubarb, and I will use it again this weekend to whip some nectarines into shape — because my mother just called to say she’ll be driving up for a (socially distanced, outdoor) visit, and I want to have something nice to serve her. Assuming the weather holds.
A Crumble Topping for All Seasons
I usually make a triple batch and keep the extra in the freezer. You can use it to top pies, coffee cakes, bars and, of course, fruit crumbles. Adapted from Tartine, a Classic Revisited, by Elisabeth Pruitt and Chad Robertson.
1¾ cup rolled oats
1¾ cup almond flour
¾ cup sugar
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup (1½ sticks) butter, melted and partly cooled
1½ cups walnuts, coarsely chopped
In a bowl, mix together the oats, almond flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt until thoroughly combined. Pour in the melted butter, and mix until evenly distributed. Gently stir in the walnuts. Spread on a baking sheet and freeze for one hour. Break into chunks. Freeze any unused portion in a resealable plastic bag for up to 6 months.
There’s no single formula for the fruit portion of a crumble, because sweetness and juiciness vary so much from one fruit to the next, and even within a single fruit as it ripens. Taste your fruit and adjust accordingly. Nonetheless, here’s a rough guideline for making an 8-by-8-inch (2 quart) crumble:
4 cups orchard fruit (nectarines, peaches, apples) or rhubarb, cut into pieces
1 cup berries
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)
¼ to ¾ cups sugar, depending on the fruit’s sweetness
2 to 4 tablespoons cornstarch, depending on the fruit’s juiciness
1 recipe crumble topping (above)
Vanilla ice cream for serving (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. When the oven is hot, combine fruits, vanilla and lemon juice (if using) in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together sugar and cornstarch until no lumps remain. Add to fruit mixture and toss to combine.
Spread fruit in 8-by-8-inch pan, top with crumble topping and bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until the fruit is bubbling and the crumble is golden (with hard or unripe fruits, you may need to lower the oven temperature and bake an additional 5 minutes).
Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream.