The humble crumble must be one of our national treasures, but can anyone make it better than a dinner lady? What do you put under it, and what do you serve with it?
I’ve always been greedily interested in food. When I was five, I decided I was going to be the chef of my own restaurant â€“ located underwater, naturally. I can still remember the menu I laboriously drew up: vegetable soup, roast chicken, apple crumble. Admirably balanced, I’d say, if perhaps a little light on seafood for the setting â€“ and although I might go for something more adventurous on the savoury side today, I’d still pick a crumble over any number of chocolate fantasias or Pernod panna cottas for afters.
It’s the classic childhood pudding; hot, sweet, and incredibly comforting. The sad thing is that, although I’ve been trying for nearly two decades, I’ve never managed to make a crumble that matched up to the stuff we were served at school. Dot the dinner lady, I salute you â€“ how I wish I’d asked for the recipe, instead of just seconds.
Crushed amaretti biscuits and cardamom seeds are all very well if you like that kind of thing, but I have a suspicion they weren’t in our school kitchen, so I seek out advice from less showy sources. Oddly, my National Trust book of Traditional Puddings makes no mention of crumble, and nor does Florence White’s Good Things in England â€“ in fact, I’m surprised to discover, from Mary Norwak‘s excellent English Puddings, that the first printed mention of the dish is in the 1950 edition of Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cookbook, an American publication. The Oxford Companion to Food suggests crumble probably originated in the second world war, as a quicker, easier alternative to pastry, and would have originally used whatever fat was available at the time.
In homage to these humble origins, I decide to start off with the plainest crumble recipe I can find, in Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Puddings (“comfort food of the highest order”). It contains just four ingredients: fruit, flour, sugar and butter. I briefly whizz 175g plain flour in the food processor with 175g butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs, and then stir in 100g caster sugar and sprinkle over a little water, so it comes together into “small pebbles”.
This goes on top of some stewed apples and blackberries, and into the oven at 200C for 30 minutes until golden and crisp, by which time the pink juices of the fruit have bubbled through the topping and caramelised promisingly on the surface (and, less happily, on the oven floor). The result is good; not as floury as previous recipes I’ve used, and without too much sponginess either; Nigel likes the soggy bit underneath, I’m more about the crisp top.
I’ve never heard of adding water to a crumble topping before, although now I know the history of the dish, it makes sense in a frugal sort of a way, and it certainly seems to have done the trick when it comes to binding the thing together. To make doubly sure, however, I’ve kept some of the mixture back, and this time, skip the water stage. The resulting crumble is a bit less craggy and interesting â€“ it tastes the same, but with crumble, that’s hardly the point.
Nigella Lawson’s a woman who looks like she knows how to appreciate a good crumble â€“ and her method in How to Eat intrigues me. She claims the texture of the topping is improved by giving the mixture a “quick blast in the deep-freeze” after it’s been rubbed together. (Alternatively, if you’re making the mixture ahead of time, you can simply store it in the fridge until you’re ready to use.)
The thinking behind this is presumably the same as with chilling shortbread dough, slowing the melting of the butter and thus helping the crumble to retain its pebbly shape while cooking. I give her recipe a whirl: 120g flour (she uses self-raising, but admits this is because the only other flour she keeps in the house is “Italian 00 and its qualities are just not required here”, so I substitute plain instead), 90g butter, and 6 tbsp sugar, rubbed together into a mixture that resembles “porridge oats”. Half goes into the freezer for 10 minutes, and the remainder goes into the oven immediately, on top of another bowl of stewed apple and blackberries. When they’re both ready, I look carefully. There’s not much in it, but the chilled mixture is indeed studded with a few more lumps and bumps than the one cooked straight away, which suggests that freezing is a good tip if you’re not pressed for time.
There’s the rub
Nigella also claims that rubbing the butter in by hand makes for a “more gratifyingly nubbly crumble; the processor can make the crumbs so fine you end up â€¦ with a cakey rather than crumbly texture”. Although I don’t find the mixing as “peculiarly relaxing” as she does (slamming a bit of dough around is far more fun), I’m not averse to going back to basics if it means saving on washing up, so I make another half batch of her recipe, and rub in the butter to the flour and sugar with my fingers (“index and middle flutteringly stroking the fleshy pads of your thumbs” as the domestic goddess puts it). Gratifyingly, I can’t tell the difference once cooked â€“ but I would second her caution to go carefully if you’re using a food processor, and pulse it rather than switching it on full, or you’ll end up with tiny, floury crumbs.
The aforementioned Mary Norwak has stern views on crumble, which she condemns, in its English incarnation, as “dull and insipid”. We should take a leaf out of the American book, she says, by using fresh, rather than stewed fruit (something I do anyway, unless apples are concerned), and a crisp butter, brown sugar and spice topping.
As I’ve moved on to Victoria plums, I leave out the 6 tbsp water and 75g sugar in her recipe (they contain quite enough already), but I do top the halved fruit with her crumble mixture of 50g butter, 25g light soft brown sugar and 75g plain flour. To be fair to the other recipes, I omit the pinch of ground ginger too. I like the flavour of the soft brown sugar, but the fine texture makes the finished crumble topping a little sandy for my taste, which prompts me to consider alternatives. Granulated demerara sugar would add crunch and flavour, but also graininess, which I’m not keen on, so I eventually settle on a half and half demerara and golden caster sugar mix as a compromise.
Jane Grigson uses an equal mixture of ground almonds and plain flour â€“ nuts seem to be a popular addition, often, as in the case of chopped hazel or walnuts, adding texture, but in this case, presumably melting into the crumble as a whole to flavour it. Nigel Slater suggests almonds go best with stone fruits, such as Jane’s apricots, or, in fact, my plums. I find her recipe slightly spongy though; the finely ground almonds seem to have turned the crumble into something rather like a cobbler which, although delicious, lacks some of the craggy crunch that makes the dish for me. Reducing the ratio, as Nigel suggests, to a quarter or a third of the flour weight, would help to lighten things up again, while retaining that lovely sweet, nutty quality.
Rolled oats are also a nice addition to an apple crumble, but I like a handful scattered on top, rather than mixed in, so they toast, rather than cook into a stodgy porridge below. Spices â€“ ground cinnamon, ginger and so on â€“ also work well in moderation. In fact, you can play around with flavourings, if you must, as much as you like, as long as you keep the mixture fairly light, and don’t overwork it. Crumble should be quick, simple â€“ and served with thick custard. Birds, naturally.
Perfect crumble recipe
150g plain flour, or 100g plain flour, 50g ground almonds
125g chilled, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
35g demerara sugar
35g caster sugar, plus extra for the fruit as required
About 900g fresh fruit, stoned or cored as necessary and cut into chunks â€“ cooking apples should be softened in a pan with a tablespoon of water and a little sugar first
Handful of porridge oats / chopped nuts (optional)
1. Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Combine the flour, ground almonds (if using), and butter in a food processor or large bowl, and pulse briefly, or rub with your fingertips, until the mixture resembles very coarse breadcrumbs with a few larger lumps. Add the sugars and stir through.
2. Sprinkle with a little cold water and rake through with a fork until you have a lumpy, crumbly mixture. Put this in the freezer for 10 minutes, or if making ahead, in the fridge until you’re ready to bake.
3. Meanwhile, put your prepared fruit in a lightly greased, shallow baking dish, and sprinkle with sugar â€“ taste it first to see how much you think it needs. You can also add any spices at this point (½ tsp ground cinnamon or ginger, for example, for apples or plums).
4. Arrange the crumble over the top of the fruit â€“ don’t press it down â€“ and sprinkle with oats or nuts if using. Bake for about half an hour, until golden and bubbling, and serve slightly cooled.
Is crumble one of our national treasures â€“ and can anyone make it better than a dinner lady? What do you like to put in it, and what do you serve it with?