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.
Mixed Berry Crisp
Makes 6 servings
A mix of classic streusel and oats — with a twist — tops this classic fruit dessert. If you use 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in the filling, it will be juicy but not very runny. For a more free-flowing syrup, use 1 1/2 teaspoons of cornstarch. The sugar amount has a wide range, but then berries do, too, so this has to be a matter of taste and tasting.
Bake the crisp in a standard 9-inch Pyrex pie plate, but it can go into a rectangular pan or a souffle dish. The baking time might change slightly, but the visual clues make it easy to tell when the crisp is done.
About the topping: You can mix the ingredients together and use the topping as soon as it’s chilled, but Dorie prefers to pre-bake about half of the topping, so it gets crunchy and nubbly. The combination of baked and unbaked topping provides a great play of textures. It’s an extra step, so it’s optional.
Serve plain, or with vanilla ice cream, plain Greek-style yogurt, sweetened whipped cream or crème fraîche, if you like.
Make Ahead: The topping needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days. The pre-baked topping can be stored at room temperature for up to 2 days.
- FOR THE TOPPING
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
- 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, ginger, cinnamon or freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) very cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- FOR THE FRUIT
- 1 1/2 pints (about 1 pound) fresh blueberries
- 1/2 pint (about 5 ounces) fresh raspberries
- 1/2 pint (about 5 ounces) fresh blackberries
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup granulated sugar (see headnote)
- Pinch fine sea salt
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon or lime (optional)
- 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons cornstarch (see headnote)
For the topping: Combine the flour, oats, brown and granulated sugars, the salt and spice, if using, in a large bowl. Mix briefly with your hands just to incorporate. Add the cold butter and toss until it is coated with the dry ingredients, then use your fingertips to rub, mash and press everything together to create moist crumbs. Sprinkle with the vanilla extract, then mix and press again. When you squeeze a handful of the topping together and it holds its shape, it is properly mixed. Pinch the topping into bits and morsels, cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (and up to 2 days).
If you’d prefer a topping that’s a mix of soft and crunchy, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner. Scoop out 1 1/4 cups of the chilled topping and spread it on the baking sheet. Bake (middle rack) for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring a couple of times, until it is golden brown and crisp. Let it cool while you prepare the filling. The cooled crumbs can be covered and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days.
For the fruit: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner (to catch any drips). Have a 9-inch pie plate at hand (see headnote).
Gently stir together the berries, 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar, the salt and the citrus zest, if using, in a large bowl. Let the fruit macerate for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then taste to see whether you’d like to add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar; if so, add it 1 tablespoon at a time, wait a couple of minutes, stir the fruit, taste and see whether you’d like more. Stir in the cornstarch; let the fruit sit for 2 minutes.
Place the pie plate on the lined baking sheet. Give the filling a final stir and spoon it and any juices that have accumulated into the pie plate. If you’ve pre-baked part of the topping, toss it together lightly with the unbaked portion. Use your hands to scatter the topping over the fruit, pressing it into the fruit gently.
Bake the crisp (middle rack) for 45 minutes to an hour or until the fruit is bubbling up around the topping and the topping is golden brown. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the crisp rest until it is cool enough to eat or until it reaches room temperature.