November 8, 2005

Eat Your Heart Out - November 8, 2005

“Shoo fly pie and apple pan dowdy,” croons Dinah Shore in the song of the same name. “Makes your eyes light up, your tummy say, ‘Howdy.’” As I was listening to this song last week, I came to the realization that I did not actually know what an apple pan dowdy was. I knew that it was a dessert made of some combination of apples and pastry, but I didn’t really know what made it different from an apple crisp or an apple cobbler. Then I got to thinking, what makes a crisp different than a crumble? How do you determine what makes a slump a slump and not a grunt? Can a Betty still be a crumble? So I did some research, mostly in the highly useful reference book, The Penguin Companion to Food (Penguin: 2002), which highlighted the differences between these seemingly similar desserts. Below are my findings.

A pandowdy (it is no longer denoted as pan dowdy) is an old fashioned deep-dish dessert that hails from New England, in which sliced fruits are tossed with spices and butter, sweetened with either molasses, maple syrup, or brown sugar, and then topped with a biscuit-like dough and baked. This would portend a cobbler, which is any deep-dish pie of cooked fruit with a thick crust on top, except midway through the baking process, the pandowdy’s crust is broken up and pressed down into the fruit to absorb the fruit’s juices—this action is known as dowdying.

It would seem that a pandowdy’s next closest relation would be a slump, a term immortalized by Louisa May Alcott, who recorded a recipe for her dish of cooked fruit with pieces of raised dough dropped on the top. It is assumed that it was called a slump because its preparation has no recognizable form and it, well, slumps on the plate. Personally, I don’t see any difference between a slump and a cobbler, though the slight variation probably lies in that the pieces of dough are smaller in a slump than a cobbler, where dough usually covers the entire top.

Now, of all deep-dish fruit desserts, I would probably have to say that my favorite is the crumble. A crumble refers to a simple topping spread instead of pastry on fruit pies with no bottom crust. Crumbles are quicker and easier to make than cobblers or pandowdies since they do not require making a pastry dough and usually only consist of flour, butter, sugar, and a dash of spice. The butter is cut into the dry ingredients, and the mixture is spooned onto the fruit, which is then baked, melting the butter and binding the solid ingredients into large grains atop the fruit. While the previous desserts are more American in heritage, a crumble is decidedly British—modern British, for there are no records of crumbles until the 20th century. However, it is thought that crumbles may have been inspired by a similar cinnamon-flavored topping, streusel, which is traditional in Austria and central Europe and contains much less flour in proportion to sugar than the British crumble.

As for a crisp, I learned that a crumble and a crisp are essentially the same dessert (Americans are more apt to call it a crisp and Brits a crumble), though I have also heard that that crisps are slightly richer than crumbles. Alternatively, the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press: 1989) denotes a crisp as a kind of pastry made by dropping batter into boiling fat, but none of the cookbooks I referred to seemed to adhere to this definition, and it is assumed that this technique does not refer to the modern day crisp.

The final dessert that falls into the genre of deep-dish fruit desserts is a Betty, which is a North American baked pudding, consisting of alternating layers of sugared and spiced fruit and buttered breadcrumbs, making it akin to a layered crumble.

So there you go. Basically, all of the desserts require the same ingredients and the same general cooking method. So if your slump doesn’t slump enough, just call it a cobbler, or if your cobbler breaks while baking, just call it a pandowdy. Or best of all, don’t call it anything—just call it dessert.

The Ingredients

4 cups sliced, peeled, and cored apples

3 Tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup flour

7 Tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

The Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350? F. Butter the bottom of a deep ovenproof baking dish with 1 Tablespoon of the butter. In a separate bowl, toss the apples with the lemon juice, cinnamon, and nutmeg until well coated. Spread the apples in the bottom of the baking dish.

2. Mix together the salt, sugar, oats, flour, and butter until it resembles a coarse dough. Sprinkle over the fruit. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until top is brown and fruit is tender.