It’s funny that my favourite dessert achieved fame because of rationing. Crumble, or crisp for North Americans, became popular in Britain during WWII because it used less fat and sugar than pie crust, and you could use breadcrumbs to bulk it out. At a time when propaganda posters warned against wasting bread, every crumb counted.
This makes crumble sound rather dire, like bread and butter pudding, which is all about thrift, not flavour. A good crumble, however, is a thing of beauty in its own right.
I haven’t tried making it with breadcrumbs, although for some reason it makes me think of brown bread ice cream, where you roll the crumbs in sugar and bake them before adding to the mix. It would make for a more toffeeish flavour.
Over the years, I have made more kinds of crumble than I care to think of. Basically, it’s cut-up fruit with sugar and a topping, which allows for a lot of variation. Two of my favourites are a plum and blueberry crumble, preferably with some ground hazelnuts in the topping, and another I think of as a winter crumble: apple with cranberries and walnuts.
The winter crumble started as an improvisation – I had apples which needed to be used, and I had bought dried cranberries at the store because I thought they would be a healthy nibble; the walnuts were leftovers from muffins. I put them all together and made crumble, then made orange-flavoured custard because the muffins were cranberry-walnut-orange flavour, and I had oranges left over.
I have given a recipe for custard along with the crumble, because it seems to be a very British thing to have with most desserts, but especially this one. (I disgraced myself when I first moved to Britain and I asked what the yellow stuff in the large container next to the desserts was. Custard, of course.)
Most of us Canadians know custard from Bird’s custard powder, the essential ingredient in Nanaimo bars. (Americans use vanilla pudding mix – not the same.) There’s nothing wrong with using Bird’s, and if you are like Mr. Bird’s wife and allergic to eggs, or you shouldn’t eat lightly cooked eggs for health reasons, custard powder or the pasteurized eggs you buy in the milk section will make a perfectly reasonable custard. (Old-school Newfies prefer tinned cream on their dessert, for some reason.)
If you’re used to Bird’s, home-made custard will seem rather pale in colour by comparison, but it has a better flavour. In the recipe below I used an orange to flavour it, but a capful of vanilla extract or, better still, a vanilla bean simmered with the custard, gives it an excellent flavour. (Almond is good with apricot and raspberry crumble. The variations are endless.)
Apple, Cranberry and Walnut Crumble
8 – 9 sliced apples
lemon juice (1/2 lemon)
½ c. brown sugar
generous pinch cinnamon
½ c. (125 ml) chopped walnuts/pecans
½ c. (125 ml) dried cranberries
½ c. (125 ml) flour
½ c. (125 ml) oatmeal
½ c. (125 ml) butter
⅓ – ½ c. (100 – 125 ml) brown sugar
Deep baking dish and a cookie tray with sides to lay it on in case it boils over.
Oven at 400 F, 200 C.
The easiest way to do this is to peel, cut up and core the apples, and put them straight into the dish you’re going to bake them in, and toss them there with the lemon juice, then the sugar and cinnamon. Toss them again with the cranberries and walnut pieces, then pat it all down so the mixture has a flat (ish) top. (Put the cookie sheet in the oven now – that will help the bottom to cook more quickly.)
Then mix together the flour, oatmeal, butter and sugar until it clumps together, and drop the clumps over the crumble trying to cover as much of it as you can. You’ll probably have to press the larger clumps a little, but don’t get too anal about it as they’ll spread out in the oven.
Put the crumble in the oven, on the heated tray. It should get nice and golden on top, which usually takes half an hour. The other test is that the juices from the fruit will bubble up around the sides. If the top browns too quickly (this is a problem if you put nuts in the topping) put some foil over it.
3 egg yolks
500 ml. cream
¼ c sugar
juice and zest of an orange
While the crumble is cooling to room temperature, make the custard. Scald the cream by pouring it into a microwaveable dish and nuke on high for about 30 seconds. You want it warm when you start adding it to the eggs and sugar. (This is more important if you go the lighter route and use milk instead of cream.)
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a saucepan, then put on the stove at low heat. Start adding the cream a little at a time, like making white sauce. Once it’s all in, keep stirring until it coats the back of the spoon. Remove from heat. Add the orange juice and zest, or other flavouring.
Take a big spoon, cut yourself some crumble, pour the custard over, and tuck in.