I admit, it is a rather unseasonable post but then my personal motto is a crumble is for life, not just for Christmas.
Crumbles are, in my opinion, the ultimate puddings. Hot, fruity, sweet, comforting and homely…
As a child I became rather obsessed with the making of crumbles and as such this was a Sunday staple pudding in our house and my main contribution to the Sunday dinner.
I started, like most, with the classic and traditional apple crumble. My recipe, from the previously mentioned, good old Good Housekeeping book (hence the measurements), is as basic as it is perfect:
8oz Plain flour
4 oz butter
4 oz brown sugar.
3 Bramley apples
Caster sugar to taste.
That recipe will be seared on my brain until the day I die! The other great thing about it is that it is so easily reduced or increased depending on how many guests you are feeding (the above recipe serves four). Even as a very non-mathematically-minded child, I could easily calculate and adjust the recipe accordingly.
Rubbing the crumble ingredients together to resemble breadcrumbs was – and still is – one of my favourite tasks. The trick is speed of movement and lightness of touch – you need to rub the butter, flour and sugar as quickly as possible between the tips of the finger and thumb and avoid over-handling otherwise it can go soggy. Cold hands are a definite advantage. The texture of fine breadcrumbs is as comforting as letting sand run through your fingers but I also liked to leave the occasional large buttery-sugary “rock” in the mix.
Opinion is divided on the issue of stewing the apples before baking. Personally I do like to cook them just for a few minutes until the start to soften (but not puree). Good Housekeeping also favours this approach and recommends adding some caster sugar to the apples when heating depending on how sweet or tart you like your pud.
As a self-professed crumble expert, I remember one Home Economics lesson at school when it was announced that we would be making apple crumble. My excitement was short lived when I discovered how regimented the process would be. Not to mention the fact that it had barely crossed my mind that not all my classmates were whipping up dessert and helping with the Sunday roast every weekend. I remember watching with increasing horror as they failed to follow instructions, dumping all the ingredients (apples, flour, sugar, butter) together then complaining that their “breadcrumbs” were too wet and had lumps of apple in them. All this was treated with a smile by the teacher but when I opened a window to stick out my hands (in the absence of a freezer I thought I was quite innovated) to make them as cold as possible (all the better for rubbing the crumble mixture together) and when I asked for some extra sugar to sprinkle over the apples, I was the one to get into trouble. Sigh.
But it wasn’t all about apples. Rhubarb crumble was another firm favourite in our house and it wasn’t long before I started putting the two together.
The apple and rhubarb combo sparked a new phase of experimentation in my crumble adventures and I would spend all week thinking about what I could top with crumble that week. I was lucky to have parents who allowed and encouraged me to experiment in the kitchen and we would try “crumbling” a variety of fresh and tinned fruits. Many of the combinations, so obvious now, still seemed exciting to me as a child:
- Apple and blackberry
- Apple and blueberry
- Apple and sultana
- Apple and rhubarb
- Rhubarb and blueberry
- Peach and apricot
- Apple and plum
Then came the experimentations with the crumble topping itself as I started to understand that additions could be made here to complement the fruit flavours, so oats were added to apple –based crumbles and nuts to the stone fruit dishes. A layer of caramel between apples and the crumble topping was also well received.
I became obsessed with the idea of adding desiccated coconut to my crumble toppings and wanted to make a summery, tropical filling to complement that. The first attempt of banana didn’t work. Banana, mango and pineapple however was a triumph!
As I grew older, I wanted my crumbles to “grow-up” with me so I started adding alcohol to the fruit during the brief stewing process. Port works well with apples and plums, amaretto is divine with plum, peach and apricot (especially with lots of flaked almonds in the crumble mixture) and Malibu gives an obvious extra kick to the tropical crumble.
As the combination of plum and almonds is so good, my most recent variation – with thanks to Earthmaiden from the Wildfood Forum – is replacing a third of the flour in the crumble mix with ground almonds. Beautiful!
So what to serve with the perfect crumble? It may surprise you to know that despite my love of crumble, I consider custard to be the work of the devil. Although a thin, “proper”, vanilla custard (crème anglais, if you will), is a world away from the thick yellow stuff normally served in these circumstances and is perfect with a nutty plum crumble. My accompaniment of choice would have to be ice cream – a good quality creamy ice cream in a perfect round scoop, placed on the hot crumble crust just before serving to allow slow melting into the fruit. I adore the hot/cold sensation of hot pud with ice cream.
I would love to hear any further suggestions for jazzing up the humble crumble.