Saturday, October 15, 2011

Peach Cobbler with Crumb Topping and Cinnamon

It’s October, and it’s raining, what better day to think about cooking fruit (with cinnamon, of course)? I’m not much of a baker, so I really love cobblers. They’re delicious, but they’re also very forgiving. Unlike most deserts (and like most savory dishes) you can taste the filling as you go, and adjust the seasonings if you need to.

Last night, I made a peach cobbler, so that’s the recipe I’ve included. However, feel free to experiment with it, even if it’s your first time making a cobbler. The recipe below is relatively bare bones, so I wouldn’t recommend omitting anything (unless you change the type of fruit, or you’re a crazy person and really don’t like cinnamon), but here are some ideas on things you could add:

Change the fruit:
Apples are an obvious choice, but pears, plums, cherries, all sorts of berries, or even mangos could be great. Combinations are fun too, go nuts.

Change the dried seasonings:
Cinnamon goes with almost any fruit, but there are lots of other wonderful autumn-y seasonings. Nutmeg is classic, as are allspice (which is actually a dried berry, not a combination of spices as some people (e.g. me, up until embarrassingly recently) think) dried ginger, cardamom, and mace. A hint of cayenne pepper can be delicious, too. You can either mix spices together so that they blend and complement each other, or emphasize one. Ginger and pear is wonderful, (you could add minced, fresh ginger, as well!) as is apple-cardamom or cherry-cinnamon-cayenne.

If you add dried seasonings to the fruit mixture, add them to the crumb topping, too!

Change the liquid:
There are lots of wonderful alcoholic liquids which could add tons of flavor to your cobbler. Dry white wines can add an elegant touch (i.e. less homey, you might even think about taking out the cinnamon (GASP) and adding ginger), and fruit-flavored vodka (either the fruit you’re using or a complementary fruit) can add a lot of flavor. I’d use vodka, rather than rum, because when the alcohol cooks off you’re left with a more pure fruit flavor. There are also some amazingly delicious liqueurs out there, such as Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur (with pears!), St. Germain elderflower liqueur (with blackberries!) or any number of orange liqueurs (with anything!) such as Cointreau. Or you could try apples and bourbon, or mangoes and Pyrat rum.

Change the sweetener:
In addition to the white sugar, you could try different types of honey, maple syrup, or sugar (palm sugar, brown sugar, etc.). If you add a liqueur, that will also sweeten the cobbler.

An IMPORTANT note on “taste and adjust seasoning”:
You might see this phrase in a lot of recipes, including my own (often it refers to salt and pepper, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion, for a later post). When you taste your cobbler, you should adjust proportions in two main ways:

Adjusting for taste balance:
The cobbler should not be too bitter, too sour, or too sweet. In general, if you taste an unpleasant bitterness, add sugar. If you add acid (i.e. sourness, a small squeeze of lemon juice, in this case) the flavors will “brighten”, becoming more sharp and distinct. If the filling tastes at all bitter or sour, or if it tastes too sweet (you’ll feel the sweetness in the back of your throat), change the ratios and re-taste.

I strongly recommend a very fun experiment—make a bowl full of a test “cobbler” in the microwave—just water and diced apples. Add sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon (which is bitter), a tiny bit at a time, and keep tasting to see what the effects are (drink water in between tasting). What is the interplay of sour, bitter, and sweet? How do they interact? Can you find the perfect balance?

Adjusting for flavor balance:
You should be able to taste every flavor in the dish—cinnamon, honey, citrus, and fruit. If you can’t taste something, add a little bit more. This is one of the hardest things about cooking, especially because the balance can change as the dish cooks more (for example, the peach flavor will get more pronounced as it bakes). Professional chefs talk about “layers of flavor” in a dish, where each ingredient hits the palate, one after another, with every bite.

Because I had to pretty dramatically adjust the taste and flavor balances, the below measurements are inexact. I also made an enormous-party sized cobbler, so I’ve halved the recipe.

Peach Cobbler with Crumb Topping and Cinnamon:

For the filling:
7 large, somewhat ripe (but not too soft) peaches. Ideally, they should be about two days away from ripeness.
Zest of 1 naval orange
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp lemon juice
Juice of ½ naval orange
¼ c white sugar
¼ c honey
½ tsp cinnamon. Ideally Saigon cinnamon.
1 tbsp cornstarch

For the topping:
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup light brown sugar, tightly packed
½ tsp cinnamon.

1.) Preheat the oven to 400°.

2.) Peel the peaches and chop them into bite sized pieces.

3.) Combine all filling ingredients except for the cornstarch in a large pot, and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the peaches soften and are heated through.

4.) Taste and adjust seasoning (see above!). Add the cornstarch, and set aside.

5.) Combine the topping ingredients in a large bowl, and mash with a fork until well combined.

6.) Pour the fruit mixture into a baking dish, top with the topping, and bake for 40-45 minutes.

7.) Turn off the oven, but leave the cobbler inside for 30-60 minutes. This will help the cobbler tighten up.

8.) Remove from the oven, let cool, if necessary, and serve with vanilla ice cream.

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