For all the years that I’ve been baking, I’m still not sure I know the difference between a crisp and a crumble. Both have fruit and a crumb topping. I’ve read that a crumble has oats and a crisp doesn’t, and I’ve read that both have oats, and that neither does.
In Paris, where I live part time, you rarely see a crisp on a menu. But le crumble (sometimes with oats and often without) is très trendy. So what’s a cook to do? I say, just bake and enjoy! That’s what I do year-round, swapping the fruit as the seasons’ bounty rolls in and out.
Although my recipe files are crammed with crisp toppings — I’m going with crisp until someone tells me I can’t — my current go-to is the accompanying mix of classic streusel and oats. (Sometimes I scratch the oats, but not if my husband’s around. He loves the flavor and extra chew you get from rolled oats.) It’s a blend of brown and white sugars, flour and oats, vanilla, spices (your choice) and butter — cold bits that you squeeze and rub and pinch into the dry ingredients until you get a lumpy, bumpy bunch of crumbs. The important test here is the grab-and-press: when you can grab a handful of topping, press it and have it hold together in your fist, you’re there. Give it a chill and then make a decision: To crisp your crisp or not.
When you chill the topping, strew it over the fruit and bake, you’ll get a classic crisp. The very top of the topping will be crisp, and the rest will be slightly soft, slightly chewy and completely scrumptious. But when you bake half of the topping on its own before constructing the crisp, you’ll have a mix of crunchy and soft, of chewy and crackly. Each spoonful will be different. As the sports guys say: This’ll take it to the next level.
Clearly, that is the option I choose. It’s a neat trick for a crisp (or a crumble) and if, like me, you end up loving the baked streusel so very much, you’ll make a full recipe of it on its own and use it on ice cream, roasted fruit or your morning yogurt.
As for the fruit, soon you’ll have so many choices. But because it’s early days at the markets, my first warm-weather crisp is a mix of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. Although I adore strawberries, I rarely add them to a crisp, especially when they’re really good. Strawberries’ virtues land on the debit side of the crisp ledger: If the berries are wonderful, then they’re bossy; their flavor overwhelms all the others in the mix. And if they’re truly ripe, they’re too juicy and will swamp the crisp. Alas. Save the strawberries for shortcake, where their juice becomes exactly the syrup you want.
Just two quick directives on the fruit: Taste. Look. Because fruit is so variable, it’s hard to give an exact measurement for the amount of sugar you’ll need, so taste as you go. Similarly, the amount of juice you’ll get is up for grabs. Add a little cornstarch to the berries once some syrup has accumulated, then look and see whether you like how it’s shaping up. Add a smidge more if you think you’d like a thicker consistency. You really can’t make a mistake here. More cornstarch, and the fruit layer will be like pie filling; less, and you’ll have plenty of juice, which provides a good reason for serving the crisp with a big spoon. You can even skip the cornstarch, if you’d like.
What you won’t want to skip is the pleasure of eating the crisp when it’s still warm. Or when it reaches room temperature. Or when it’s chilled. Here’s the thing about crisp: It’s good. Always. And all ways.
Photograph by Deb Lindsey. This story appeared originally in my Everyday Dorie column for the Washington Post.