Finding Family History in a Recipe for (the Easiest) Apple Crisp

BY Claire Tansey TIMEFebruary 27, 2019 PRINT

The most delicious dessert I know is also the easiest. Apple crisp isn’t pretty enough for a bakery shop window, but it’s still magic: The transformation of only four humble ingredients—butter, brown sugar, flour, and apples—into a triumph of flavor and texture.

It’s the kind of rustic fruit dessert that’s been made effortlessly by home cooks for generations. Apple crisp and its cousins (crumble, cobbler, brown betty, pandowdy) don’t take much effort, just fresh fruit and a simple topping. There’s no decorative edging, no pretty pastry cut-outs, no flourish of buttercream—just simple, seasonal, and delicious home baking.

It has been my family’s Sunday dinner dessert for generations. The recipe is my maternal grandmother’s (although it’s likely her mother’s or grandmother’s), passed to my mom, and then to me, by the age-old tradition of a handwritten recipe card. There is a collection of these recipe cards in my mother’s kitchen binder. Although I never really knew her, my grandmother’s steady, heavily-slanted cursive is as familiar and comforting to me as the apple crisp itself.

Ethel Bebbington was born in 1902 in a tiny village called Wem, in Shropshire, England. Her family emigrated to Canada in 1912, where they eventually settled in Wainwright, Alberta, a tiny town where the average winter day would be about –4 degrees F. It must not have been an easy childhood. She grew up, moved to the more temperate west coast, married my grandfather, and had two daughters. She kept house, but she also learned bookkeeping and managed the accounts at a local sawmill. She loved music, and cards, and hosted epic parties at which there would be dinner as well as a grand midnight buffet of cold sliced meats and baked goods. Sounds like my kind of person.

She died when I was two, and so while I recognize her in photos, I don’t have any memories of her. Instead, I have her recipes. There’s blister cake, birds’ nest cookies, and rhubarb crisp, all written in that unwavering script. The ingredients are clear, but some of the instructions are minimal, such as “add enough flour to make a dough.” From using these recipes I imagine that she was direct, practical, and generous. When her recipe says “bake in the usual way,” it feels like she trusts me, and inspires me to have confidence in my own cooking instincts.

Of all the recipes she left us, it’s her apple crisp that I love the most. The recipe itself is quite detailed: “I use a little more,” she writes of the 1/2 cup flour measurement, and “use the tips of your fingers” to crumble the butter into the flour and sugar. The resulting dessert is magnificent, a mass of tender, sweet-tart apples under a crunchy, caramelized brown sugar and butter crust. When writing my own cookbook, “Uncomplicated,” apple crisp was the anchor of the dessert chapter since it perfectly captures the essence of uncomplicated cooking.  

In Grandma’s time, as in mine, apples are featured in dishes throughout the year because they last so well through the winter, kept in a cool dark spot like the cellar or fridge. They’re pureed into fall butternut soups, spiced and braised alongside winter pork roasts, tucked into phyllo pastry for spring strudels, and baked into muffins for lunch boxes year-round. Apple crisp is also welcome any time.

On Sundays, while my husband makes a family roast dinner, I’m on duty for dessert. There are always apples in the crisper—the might be green or red, perfect or bruised, Gala or Granny Smiths. I’ll smear a baking dish with butter, peel and slice the apples right into the dish, and mix up a batch of crisp topping. The baking dish goes into the oven after the main course comes out, and by the time the dishes are cleared away from dinner, our apple crisp is warm and bubbly.

Last year, my mother gave me Grandma’s engagement and wedding rings. Worn through at the back from wear, and doubtless marked by traces of flour, butter, and sugar, they needed refurbishing. I had them combined into one single signet ring to wear on my right hand. As I mash butter with brown sugar and flour, I like to think that Grandma, along with the rest of my indomitable ancestors, is gracing me with the collected wisdom of thousands of apple crisps.  

Apple Crisp

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: About 1 1/4 hours

Makes one 9-inch round or 8-inch square crisp, serves 6

  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
  • 1/2 cup butter, cold and cubed
  • 6 medium apples

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch pie plate or 8-inch square baking dish with butter or non-stick cooking spray.

To make the topping, stir the brown sugar with the flour and cinnamon (if using) in a large bowl. Add the butter and use your fingers to squish the butter into the flour mixture. You should end up with some pea-sized lumps of butter, as well as some lima-bean-sized lumps.

Peel and slice the apples. Put the slices into a large bowl and add about 1/3 cup of the topping mixture. Stir well, then scrape the slices into the prepared baking dish, spreading them fairly evenly. Top with the rest of the topping and smooth it into an even layer.

Place the dish on a baking sheet, then bake 35 to 45 minutes or until the topping is golden brown and the filling is bubbly at the edges. Serve warm with ice cream, if desired.

Tip: To make the topping in the food processor, whirl the brown sugar, flour and cinnamon first, then pulse in the butter.

Make ahead: You can make the topping and freeze it in a resealable plastic bag for up to 1 month. You can also bake the crisp up to 1 day in advance and reheat it at 375 degrees F for about 15 minutes.

Excerpted from “Uncomplicated: Taking the Stress Out of Home Cooking” by Claire Tansey. Copyright © 2018 by Claire Tansey. Published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Claire Tansey is a Toronto-based author, teacher, and food expert. Her first cookbook, “Uncomplicated,” is available in bookstores everywhere. Find more recipes, tips, and tricks at or follow @tanseyclaire.

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