The first time anyone asked me to expound on the subject of summer fruit cobblers, crisps, and crumbles, my first thought was, “Oh, let’s not and say we did.”
Why? Certainly not because the dishes aren’t worthy. Each, in its own way, is a scrumptious delight.
And certainly not because summer isn’t the perfect time to talk sweets filled with luscious berries and tree fruits. Honestly, I can’t think of a better end for overripe peaches and a handful of blueberries.
No, the reason for my reluctance comes down to semantics. In the United States, which is where these desserts originated (as British colonists often lacked the specific ingredients for their favorite old country sweets), every region, state, ethnic group, and family has its own nomenclature for these pairings of cooked fillings and crusty toppings.
There are arguments about what constitutes a proper cobbler and what distinguishes a cobbler from a crisp and a crisp from a crumble. But what’s more, there are dozens of localized names for these dishes, including grunt, slump, pandowdy, brown betty, buckle, dump, and sonker.
What’s in a Name?
Rather than attempt to please everyone by delineating each and every version of this culinary genre, I’m going to work within a few broad groupings. In doing so, I freely acknowledge that your grandma may have put streusel topping on her crumble, while mine insisted on pecans, but our recipes can meet somewhere in the juicy middle.
My other disclaimer is this: The origins of these dishes often come with wonderful anecdotes that may or may not be true. A few writers insist that cobbler was something chuck wagon chefs prepared on cattle drives because they had to “cobble together” whatever dessert they could from canned or dried fruits cooked over an open fire. It is a great story, but the more likely explanation is that cobblers predate the great western migrations, and their name does, too.
Cobbler Versus Cobbler
The word “cobbler” likely has origins in the Middle English word “cobeler,” which refers to a type of wooden bowl. Nobody knows for sure, although one thing is certain—there are two distinct types of cobblers being served at tables around the country as we speak.
The first type of cobbler resembles a thick, single-layer cake richly filled with sweet, fresh fruit. The recipes layer batter and lightly cooked fruit in a baking dish, and once in the oven, the batter rises around and through the fruit, resulting in a tender cake filled with fruit pockets.
The second type of cobbler offers a bottom layer of syrupy fruit topped with a mixture that resembles sweet biscuit or shortbread dough. When served, the crunchy-topped biscuit dough swims in a pool of peaches, apples, or berries, with the soft center soaking up the juices.
North Carolina’s beloved sonker dessert essentially combines the two types of cobbler, with a cooked fruit “filling” underneath a light, crispy-topped sheet of vanilla cake.
Similarly, the all-American dump cake, originated by cake mix-maker Duncan Hines in the early 1980s, starts with dumping a layer of fruit filling (usually canned) into a baking pan, followed by a box of cake mix sprinkled over the fruit, and melted butter drizzled over it all.
The pandowdy starts as a crunchy-topped cobbler, made with a spiced fruit layer (usually apples sweetened with syrup and sugar plus cinnamon) with a biscuit dough or pastry topper. Before the dish leaves the oven, the baker breaks up the top coating and pushes it into the fruity filling. The resulting fruit-glazed finish looks unattractive (hence, the “dowdy” part), but tastes delicious.
Slumps, Grunts, and Buckles
These homey desserts sound even less appetizing than the dump or pandowdy, but deserve a hearing.
First, know that slumps and grunts are the same dish—some regions name it after the action it takes while cooking, and others name it for the sound it makes. Either way, the dish is a stovetop rendition of the fruit-and-dough theme.
Fresh berries or sliced tree fruits are loaded into a skillet along with sugar and dessert spices and occasionally a splash of brandy. The fruit simmers into a thick, sweet stew into which flat dumplings of dough are dropped. The dumplings cook in the fruit, creating a topping that looks like an uneven puzzle of crust and fruit. Because slumps and grunts cook on the stove, many recipes are quite adaptable to a slow cooker.
Buckles begin with a dense cake batter onto which pieces of fresh fruit have been decoratively or randomly arranged. These treats bake in the oven and, while baking, the batter rises and buckles around the fruit pieces. Unlike other dishes in this genre, which may seem like haphazard pies, a buckle more often resembles a fruit-studded coffee cake.
Crisps and Crumbles
Both crisps and crumbles begin with a thick layer of sweetened fruit in a deep baking dish. On this, everyone agrees. Beyond that, family custom and personal preferences begin to blur the line. That said, I’ll take a stab at explaining the most commonly referenced distinction, which conveniently is the one used by my family.
Crisps aim for thin, crunchy toppings often composed primarily of rolled oats. In fact, if you cut a bit of cold butter into your favorite sweet oat-and-nut granola recipe, you’d probably come up with a fairly tasty and accurate fruit crisp topping. Some cooks throw a handful of crunchy cereal or seeds or chopped nuts into the mix, as well as a little flour to bind it all together. The topping is evenly sprinkled over the fruit and bakes into a crisp, crunchy coating that offsets the soft, succulent fruit.
Crumbles, on the other hand, have a thick, streusel-like crumb topping. The main ingredients are flour, cold butter, and sugar. Variants may include chopped nuts or brown sugar, or even a half-cup of oats for texture. But the end result should be a luxurious layer of buttery crumbs that fall onto your fork and seep into the fragrant fruit filling below.
The brown betty falls somewhere between a crisp and a crumble, using slightly stale bread instead of flour to create a crumb topping. The traditional betty recipe layers crumbs and fruit (usually sliced or diced apples) in a baking dish, although an updated version simply tosses together cubed stale bread, fruit, sugar, and spices and tops the casserole with crumbs and chopped nuts.
Make It Your Own
Regardless of which fruit dessert you choose to pull out for your midsummer backyard picnic, recognize that you can adapt any of these recipes to your own tastes. Tart berries don’t have to be tamed with an avalanche of sugar, if you prefer your desserts less sweet, while toppings can be soft or crunchy, nutty or smooth. You could even play with the idea of a savory meat-and-dough combination for a midweek family entrée.
Best of all, once you’ve perfected your own cobbler-esque dish, you can call it whatever you like!
Louisiana native Belinda Hulin Crissman writes cookbooks and food articles from her adopted hometown of Atlantic Beach, Fla. She’s the author of five cookbooks, including “Roux Memories: A Cajun-Creole Love Story with Recipes.” When she’s not writing, you’ll find her scoping out old and new culinary delights.