Betties, buckles, cobblers and crisps: Andrew Coppolino's fall fruit desserts

Pastry-based fruit desserts are a delicious way to celebrate the fall harvest but they also bring a lot of history, writes Andrew Coppolino.
Deep dish apple pie is a popular and traditional autumn dessert. But fruit and pastry desserts in many other forms are making a comeback. (The Associated Press/Matthew Mead)

Strawberry shortcake showcases those majestic June and July berries, but late summer and early autumn offer delicious fruits that are prime ingredients for their own class of baked treats.

While apple pie is perhaps a definitive dessert at this time of the year – especially with that scoop of ice cream – there are lesser known dishes that warm both the tummy and the soul as cooler fall weather rolls in. They range from the pandowdy to the clafouti; from the betty to the buckle.

In mid-September, there are still a few stonefruits like peaches, plums and the odd apricot around as well as lots of pears and apples; perhaps so much so that you may not be able to eat them one piece at a time before they start to get too ripe.

A good strategy is to purchase and cook them in bulk. And it's all the better when you start using heady spices like cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg.
Strawberry shortcake is a popular early-summer dessert that highlights abundant berries, but it can also be made with stone fruits. (Wikimedia Commons )

There is a wide range of these dishes; some will be familiar and some not. What is clear is that their names are closely associated with and perhaps even mimic their physical characteristics: crisps, crumbles, cobblers, buckles, slumps and grunts. (I have no comment about betty.)

ABC: Apple, Betty, Crisp

The crisp, for instance, is a basic baked fruit dish (apples and pears combine nicely) that is topped with a fine streusel layer of butter, sugar and flour that becomes crisp when cooked. Juxtapose that with a crumble, which often has oats in a topping that is moister and will – you got it – "crumble" under its own weight when served.

When you move into cobbler territory, you are in the heartland of baked fruit desserts: it's a very deep dish fruit pie (without a bottom crust) made with a quick bread or biscuit-like topping. Many desserts are variations on the cobbler, which uses fairly large chunks of fruit; early recipes might even call for whole peaches, including the pit.

Of English and colonial American origin, the cobbler may take its name in light of ingredients missing for a traditional suet pudding: shards of biscuit or thick cracker were instead broken up and arranged – cobbled together, in other words – to form a topping that might also be said to look like a cobblestone road.

Though a much difference consistency than a cobbler, the clafouti, which hails from Limousin, France, also uses large chunks of fruit, traditionally whole cherries, submerged in its thick batter. Peaches, plums and pears are also used.

A concoction that has a name that implies a somewhat unfashionable appearance is the pandowdy. Similar to the cobbler, the pandowdy carries with it a sense of something frumpy. The dish may look a bit dowdy due to a technique which sees its topping, a rolled-out dough, smashed down into the filling part way through the cooking time. The result is still tasty, however.

The venerable Joy of Cooking: The All-Purpose Cookbook, published in 1931, lists four fruity dessert comestibles called "betties:" brown, prune, apricot and pineapple. These are usually multi-layered and baked desserts often with a dried bread or Graham cracker crumb base. They should have a bread pudding quality according to the book's authors, though they have no answer for the origin of the name.

Slumps and grunts

That leaves slumps and the onomatopoeic grunts: the former were said to collapse when served (imagine earth slumping down a slope); the latter were thought to make "grunting" sounds while they baked. You will find recipes for blueberry slumps from Canada's east coast: they usually have more fruit filling than biscuit-style topping.

Finally, like the slump and the grunt, the buckle is a fruit and cake batter dessert with a streusel topping which "buckles" or shifts as it is served.

Given these various fragilities and structural collapses, it would seem a good thing that early bakers and pastry chefs stayed in the kitchen and avoided a career in engineering. 

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.