Written By Chef Peter Martin
Cobblers, Crisps, Buckles and Grunts; we've grown up hearing the names but do you know the difference? What is a Pandowdy anyway and what the heck is a Slump? And while we are at it, what is the difference between a Crisp and a Crumble? These are just a few names of fruit desserts that grace American tables. Ask the average person, on the street, to describe any of these and they might be able to give a description of a cobbler or a crisp. Ask the same question to the next person and you are apt to get a totally different description, and I'm willing to bet that neither of them could describe what a Pandowdy or Betty is. Not to fear, I am here to give you the definitive answers to all these questions….well maybe not the definitive answer seeing as these names can change from region to region and state to state. I will, hopefully, enlighten you as to what these dishes were traditionally and maybe pique your interest in some of these forgotten desserts.
The first thing to remember is that most of these desserts were created when early American colonists tried to create their favorite desserts and puddings from their homelands. The fruit they traditionally used may have not been available at the time or they needed to adapt the cooking process to primitive conditions of early colonial life. Either way, these colonists adapted these foods to suit their conditions and in doing so created American originals, based on European traditions. Some dishes, such as Cobblers have exact counterparts in Europe, while many others changed so much they no longer resemble anything found in the colonist's homelands.
The next thing to remember is that nothing I write here is set in stone. What passes for a Cobbler in one part of the country may be quite different from what it means in another part. What is called a Grunt in Massachusetts is called a Slump in Vermont and Maine. Some of these dishes you may have never heard of as their popularity has waned and now they are found only in certain regions of the country. While some of these dishes are best known using a specific fruit-think Apple Crisp or Blueberry Buckle-they are often made with fruit that is in season or on hand.
Crisps and Crumbles are relatively the same, with the dish most often being called a Crisp in America and more often called a Crumble in the UK. Some people state that the difference is that a Crumble is topped with a mixture of sugar, flour and butter while the topping for a Crisp also often contains oats and/or nuts. Both are made with a layer of spiced fruit, topped with this streusel like topping and then baked until golden brown and bubbly.
Nowadays, Cobblers are often seen with a solid pastry topping consisting of either pie dough or a biscuit like dough. Traditionally, though, Cobblers were made with a biscuit dough that was dropped onto the hot fruit mixture and then baked until brown. One suggestion as to the origin of the name claims it was called a Cobbler due to the fact the top of the finished dish looked like cobblestones. Cobblers, Crisps and Crumbles are still quite popular today both in restaurants and at home. The next few items have somewhat fallen out of favor with the general public but can still be found in the regional cuisines of the United States and elsewhere.
The Buckle, of which the Blueberry Buckle is the most popular, starts with a layer of cake batter that is topped with fruit and then a streusel topping. As the dish bakes the fruit and streusel partially sink into the cake giving the top its namesake texture.
Grunts and Slumps were popular New England dishes with a close resemblance to the steamed puddings of the UK. These dishes are created on the stove top where a mixture of fruit, sugar and spices is brought to a gentle boil. A biscuit or dumpling dough is dropped into this hot mixture, the pot is covered and the dough is allowed to steam. The name Grunt comes from the sound the dish made while it was cooking, and Slump refers to the way it sat in the dish after serving.
The Pandowdy, apple being the most popular flavor, starts out similar to a Cobbler, with a pie dough or crumbly biscuit dough covering the fruit mixture underneath. During the cooking process the topping is broken up and pushed into the fruit mixture to finish its cooking time by being steamed.
And finally, there is the Betty, or Brown Betty. Traditionally an apple dish that consisted of layers of apples, tossed with brown sugar and spices, and buttered bread crumbs that was baked until the apples were tender. Today, a popular variation of this dish consists of bananas that are layered with crushed gingersnaps and then baked.
As I said before, there are many regional variations on these dishes and what is called a Cobbler in one region might be called a Slump in another. No matter what you call them or what fruit you decide to add, don't over look these wonderful desserts. Most of us have made and eaten Crisps and Cobblers, but I encourage you to look beyond those and try some of these less well known dishes. I also encourage to experiment with using fruits different from those traditionally used. It was this creative spirit, of the early colonists, that created these desserts and by following in their footsteps we continue the long tradition of make the best with what we have.