If you like apple desserts—and who doesn’t?—you’ll love the crisp, pie, cake, and bars on these pages. They’ve got all the comforting, satisfying flavors that make these types of desserts such favorites, plus one thing more: They all feature easy crumb toppings, which are the crowning touch for just about anything appley. The tenderness of cooked apples practically cries out for the contrast of a crisp-crunchy top. And flavorwise, too, toppings made with brown sugar and butter (and perhaps spiked with cinnamon or nuts) marry beautifully with apples.
The crumb toppings for the following desserts are all slightly different from one another, but they have one very important thing in common: They’re a cinch to make. For three of them, you don’t even need a mixer to combine the ingredients, just a bowl and your fingers. Depending on the proportions of the three main ingredients—flour, butter, and sugar—and on how well you blend them, the topping might be crunchier, coarser, or sandier (see below).
One of the great things about crumb toppings is that they’re flexible and forgiving. By tweaking the proportions, you can vary the texture and size of the crumb. And if you tend toward imprecision when measuring, crumb toppings are for you: The result might be a little less crisp or less crumbly than intended, but it will still be delicious. Here are my ideal proportions for a basic crumb topping, followed by tips to modify it to achieve a different texture.
Adding confectioners’ sugar in addition to the other sugars provides more crunch and also causes the mixture to spread a bit for a more classic coffee cake look. Melting the butter produces a similar effect. Increasing the brown sugar adds crunch and also delivers a deeper, caramelized flavor.
To encourage the topping to spread together rather than remain pebbly and separate, try any of the following: add more butter, use melted butter, or bake at a higher temperature. All of these changes lead to a crumb topping that tends more to one unified layer than lots of individual clumps.
For larger lumps, the simplest approach is to blend the mixture very thoroughly; the more you work it between your fingers, the more it will clump together into larger pieces. You can also use a little less flour or boost the amount of brown sugar.
Three changes can help produce a finer, sandier texture: don’t blend the mixture too thoroughly, use more flour, or reverse the proportions of granulated sugar to brown sugar. If you replace all of the brown sugar with granulated sugar, the topping will be extra tender, too.