The way I see it, crisps (or crumbles for Brits) provide 80% of the joy of pie for 20% of the work. Crisps take the essential elements of a good fruit pie – great fruit, sugar, butter, flour – and provide a buttery crumble topping without the hassle of finicky pie dough.
By doing away with a bottom crust, a crisp is also a much lighter dessert than pie. Pie crust needs at least a stick of butter (or, more common and much worse, shortening) for each top and bottom crust. But a crisp uses one stick of butter for its entire golden topping, which in good logic leaves room for a scoop of creamy ice cream on the side.
The one problem with crisps is that they don’t keep as well as pies, as the topping often gets soggy overnight. But I find finishing off the crisp on the first day is no problem at all.
Peach crisp is a fantastic dessert for a beginner cook. I’ve been making apple crisp since I was a kid, when my mom would help out with peeling the apples. But peach crisp in the summer is even easier. Apple skins get tough when cooked, but delicate peach skins serve to let your diners know that your peaches are absolutely not from a can. Peaches also cook quickly, so you can be relaxed about the size and uniformity of your slices.
Crisps are very forgiving. Less fruit or a larger pan makes a thinner crisp; more fruit or a smaller pan makes a thicker one. With only three ingredients in the topping – flour, sugar, butter – I’ve made crisps often from memory, and often I’ve realized later that my memory was not precisely right. But even an imperfect crisp never disappoints, unlike an imperfect pie that can be flat, or soggy, or tough.
Crumbles were popularized during World War II in Britain, when strict rationing was under effect. In that way crisps or crumbles can be seen as a more austere version of pie. But to me a great pie is headlined by a beautifully flaky crust, while a great crisp highlights warm, sweet fruit. You can bury canned fillings in a rich pie crust, but a crisp calls for fresh, seasonal fruit.
The original apple crisp recipe comes from Craig Claiborne’s 1961 classic, The New York Times Cookbook. In 2010, Amanda Hesser put together an updated version, The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, but I don’t know if this humble, old fashioned recipe made it into a the new century.
My mom’s peach tree produces a great crop every other year. This is a good year. We treasure them all, eating a dozen a day and baking the imperfect ones.
Peaches in the pan sprinkled with a bit of sugar and nutmeg. This is a 9″x13″ baking dish, but I think 8″x8″ is ideal for the amount of topping a stick of butter makes.
Flour, sugar and butter in a bowl (don’t be confused; this organic granulated sugar is a bit brown). Very easy to remember – stick of butter, cup of flour, half-cup of sugar. Cut the cold butter into small pieces.
Because I’m always trying to minimize cleanup, I just use my hand to rub the butter into the flour and butter. But it only takes a few pulses in a food processor. Or use a fork, pastry cutter or two knives. It’s done when crumbly.
Sprinkle topping on the fruit. Not making pie crust saves me so much heartache.
Bake until golden. I always forget to set a timer and just peek when the house starts to smell like a warm bakery.
Serve warm with ice cream, whipped cream or sweetened cream.
80% of the joy of pie with 20% of the work. Adapted from the apple crisp recipe in Craig Claiborne’s classic New York Times Cookbook. Play with your fruit fillings – peach-blueberry is another summer favorite.
- 6 cups fresh peaches or nectarines, sliced (about 6 large)
- 1/2 cup sugar (you can cut to 1/4 cup if your peaches are super sweet)
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- Sprinkle of nutmeg (or cinnamon/ginger/cloves or combination)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, cold
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter)
- 1/4 cup chopped nuts (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Place peach slices in 8″x8″ square baking dish. Sprinkle with sugar, lemon juice and spices. Stir briefly to mix in.
- Add flour, sugar and salt (if using) to a mixing bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and add to bowl. Blend the cold butter into the dry ingredients until mixture is crumbly (use a fork, pastry cutter or two knives, a few pulses in a food processor, or your fingers to rub bits of butter in repeatedly, releasing quickly to keep the butter cold). Mix in nuts, if using.
- Sprinkle the topping mixture evenly over the filling in the baking dish. Bake for about 45 minutes, until topping is golden brown.
- Serve hot with vanilla ice cream.
- The filling is super flexible – more or less fruit, different fruit, lots of spice or none, less sugar or more, brown sugar or white, lemon or no, depending on what you have and what you like.
- If your fruit is particularly juicy, mix in a tablespoon of flour or cornstarch with the filling. This will thicken the juices during cooking.
- The crisp will work in a smaller or larger baking dish – a larger dish will result in a thinner crisp; smaller dish will make a thicker one. Though with a smaller dish you may want put a rimmed baking sheet under the baking pan to catch any sticky juice that bubbles over during cooking.
- You can bake at 375 degrees F if you are in a hurry – saves a few minutes.
Here’s the link to a printable version.