Cook Without a Recipe: Fruit Crisps

blueberry crumble edit 1

If you haven’t noticed, stone fruit and berry seasons have just collided, leaving in their wake a vibrant trail of indigo and crimson stained fingers, shirts, and toddler cheeks. Now is my favorite time to bake with fruit. Sure, nothing beats a perfect plum, cherry, or peach eaten out of hand, but these fruits have a notoriously short window in which you can experience them at peak perfection. If you tend to lose all self control at the market and purchase these items en masse with no thought for how long they’ll actually last on your counter top or in the fridge, you might want to try baking a few fruit crisps to work through your fruit. Fruit crisps, a dessert comprised of fruit topped with a crumbly topping and baked until bubbly, are crowd pleasers in every right, and they’re simple to make.

If you’ve got a few basic pantry staples on hand, making a crisp topping is quick work. A basic recipe usually includes nothing more than rolled oats, flour, sugar, salt, and cold butter. You simply stir the dry ingredients together and then use your fingers to work small pieces of cold butter into the mixture, taking care to not let the butter get warm. If you’ve got some nuts to use up, grind those up and toss them into the mix. You can double the recipe and keep the excess in the fridge to use through the week, or pop it in the freezer for longer storage, enabling you to throw a presentable dessert on the table with little effort when unexpected company stops by for dinner. For a fun texture, polenta, millet, or rolled grains other than oats can be added, and spices like cinnamon, ground ginger, and cardamom (used judiciously) play off of many stone fruits and berries quite well.

The fruit doesn’t need much work, especially if you’ve got peak-season produce. If you don’t want any fuss, just toss some cut up fruit into a dish, top with the crisp topping, and bake; your fruit juices will be runny this way, but that doesn’t usually stand in anyone’s way come dessert time. You can make things better by stirring the fruit with a  starch to thicken the fruit juices (corn starch, arrowroot, tapioca starch, or even regular all-purpose flour will work here) and adding an acid for balance (lemon, lime, and orange juice/zest go well with most stone fruits and berries). You can also add a splash of rum, bourbon, or other liquor of choice to warm things up a bit. Toss the fruit into individual-sized ramekins or into a larger dish, top with the crisp topping, bake until bubbly, and then serve either plain or with ice cream, whipped cream, or mascarpone cheese.

To make the fruit crisps pictured above, I filled each ramekin with a mixture of sliced peaches and whole blueberries, then stirred in a good squeeze of lime juice, a bit of lime zest, a sprinkling of sugar, and a healthy sprinkling of flour. The crisp topping came from a batch I made from 1 cup of rolled oats, 3/4 cup coarsely ground pistachios, a few tablespoons each of flour and sugar, and a healthy pinch of salt. After stirring that together, I cut several tablespoons of butter into small cubes and worked it into the oat mixture until the whole mixture was crumbly and the butter was worked in. I topped the fruit-filled ramekins with this (I like a lot of crisp topping on the fruit, but tailor this to your taste), then baked them in a 400 degree oven for about 25 minutes, until the crisp topping was golden and the fruit juices were bubbly. I like to let the crisps cool for about 15 or 20 minutes before serving.

Need some ideas for flavor combinations? Cherries with an almond crisp topping is a classic pairing, and you can booze it up with a shot of brandy mixed in. Plums and pluots love cardamom, and you can step out on a limb with a bit of black pepper in the background, just to make things interesting. Strawberries and blueberries work well with subtle herbal undertones (strawberries with lemon zest and a crisp topping faintly scented with basil would be lovely. Peaches do fantastic things when paired with raspberries, citrus, polenta, and bourbon. Apricots, honey, and thyme? Divine. For the holidays, apples and/or pears with cranberries, cinnamon, and a walnut or pecan topping would make many a holiday guest happy. Once you have the basics down for making a fruit crisp, you can stay as traditional or get as creative as you’d like, and most importantly, you’ll have another great dessert option that doesn’t take much effort to make.

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