I’ve baked more fruit crisps in the last few years than I could count on both my hands and all of your toes. And no matter which sweet thing has managed to find its way into my gaping maw between crisps, it’s damn near guaranteed that I’d have preferred that it had been some variety of baked fruit, in its countless incarnations. There’s been an apple-fresh cranberry, apple-raisin, apple-pear, peach, peach-blueberry, peach-raspberry, mixed berry and one day, hopefully very soon, there will be a mango and also a sour cherry.
But before we get into my new favorite topping, let me give you a rough outline of the makings of any baked fruit crisp. Fruit of your choice is washed, prepped and coarsely chopped and tossed in its baking dish (usually, a deep dish pie pan, but it can be scaled up easily to a 9×13) with somewhere between two tablespoons (for a not very leaky fruit) to half a cup of flour (berries, I’m looking at you), some sugar (more for rhubarb, way less for peaches), a pinch of salt and some flavoring, be it lemon juice, cinnamon or a scrape of vanilla. Go wild. The topping always begins with melted butter, because it’s the easiest and it has never failed me, a few tablespoons of brown, white or crunchy sugar, and a mixture of flour/oats/finely chopped nuts or just flour. This mix is spread over the fruit mixture and popped in the oven for 40 to 60 minutes, while a resolution-weakening aroma wafts through your apartment. There is simply nothing not to love.
But here’s where things were never quite ideal: You see, I’m a topping junkie, and one stick of butter’s worth never made quite enough. Oh, sure, it covered well, but what I really wanted was a big bite topping with every bite of fruit. Yet, uninterested in turning a healthful baked fruit dessert into something with the caloric heft of cheesecake, I refuse to double the topping to a two-stick of butter count.
Enter the darling Nigella Lawson. In a pear-apple crumble recipe published in the New York Times a few years ago–which I’ve made, and is both understated and fantastic–she adds a teaspoon of baking powder to a somewhat standard crisp topping and turns it into a crumble, with large rubble-like pieces of awesome, without upping the butter in any way. All this time, I thought I could love nothing more than a baked fruit crisp, and it took a single bite of a rhubarb-strawberry crumble at a Sunday afternoon barbeque to turn my back on the crisp, perhaps for good.
With a little leavening, the proportion of topping to fruit is closer to the gloried 1:2 ratio that makes you feel like you’re being “good,” just not earnestly so. Personally, I can’t imagine wanting anything more from dessert.
Yields 6 to 8 servings.
For the topping:
1 1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons Demerara sugar (or turbinado sugar aka Sugar in the Raw)
Zest of one lemon
1/4 pound (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
For the filling:
1 1/2 cups rhubarb, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 quart strawberries plus a few extras, hulled, quartered
Juice of one lemon
1/2 cup sugar
3 to 4 tablespoons cornstarch (some commenters found the flour option a little too, well, floury so this has been updated)
Pinch of salt
1. Heat oven to 375°F. Prepare topping: In a mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sugars and lemon zest and add the melted butter. Mix until small and large clumps form. Refrigerate until needed.
2. Prepare filling: Toss rhubarb, strawberries, lemon juice, sugar, cornstarch and a pinch of salt in a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate. (I used an oval dish this time, because they fit better in the bottom of a shopping bag.)
3. Remove topping from refrigerator and cover fruit thickly and evenly with topping. Place pie plate on a (foil-lined, if you really want to think ahead) baking sheet, and bake until crumble topping is golden brown in places and fruit is bubbling beneath, about 40 to 50 minutes.