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How-To

Updating American Fruit Desserts

New toppings and summer fruit combinations give a fresh spin to these homey classics

Fine Cooking Issue 66
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Many old-fashioned American fruit desserts have fanciful yet obscure names, like pandowdy, betty, buckle, and grunt. Though the names may seem odd, the desserts themselves are downright delicious and easy to make. They’re really just kissing cousins of the more familiar cobbler—simple pairings of fruit baked with dough on top.

Because we have so many marvelous fresh fruits in our markets at this time of year, I’ve updated these old-time recipes using fruit combinations that may never have been used in the “olden days,” and I’ve given some of the toppings new twists. For example, pandowdies were historically made with apples and bread dough. In my revised recipe, I combined peaches and blueberries and exchanged the traditional bread dough for a buttery pastry topped with sliced almonds.

The one dessert I’ve left almost unchanged is the Apple Brown Betty. This is still best when made with apples, but instead of using dried breadcrumbs, I found that pieces of bread torn from a chewy loaf of Italian or French bread make for a delicious texture contrast with the soft fruit.

All of these homespun desserts are ideal for picnics, barbecues, and informal parties, outdoors or in. They’re delicious on their own, but you can also serve them with lightly sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Brown Betty

This is a delicious dish of sugared and spiced apples layered with butter-toasted breadcrumbs. Calvados (French apple brandy) or apple cider and vanilla are poured over the apples for extra flavor and moistness.

Although we don’t know this dessert’s origin for certain, it probably came about like so many of America’s early fruit desserts, as a way for a housewife to quickly make a treat for her family by using up what she had on hand— some stale bread and apples, which were readily available.

Apples were the one fruit almost everyone had access to, since the Pilgrims brought apple seedlings with them on the Mayflower in 1620. In my research, I haven’t been able to discover why this dish is called “betty,” but the earliest version I’ve found is from an 1856 cookbook, where it’s named “Apple Brown Betsy.”

Apple Brown Betty with Rustic Crumbs.

Grunt

Don’t let the name put you off. This dessert of baked fruit topped with biscuits or dumplings is the height of elegant simplicity. My version is a dish of lightly spiced plums baked in a bath of slightly thickened juices with golden cinnamon-swirled biscuits on top.

Many old recipes say to steam a grunt in a covered container on top of the stove, but I prefer the oven because the topping becomes firm and offers a delicious textural contrast with the soft fruit. Grunts can be made with any fruit, but plums are particularly good because of their color, tartness, and juiciness.

As for the name, I’ve read it came about because of the grunting sound the dish makes when it comes out of the oven, but my grunts have always been silent.

Plum Grunt with Swirled Biscuit Topping.

Pandowdy

A pandowdy—sweetened fruit baked with a topping of dough—dates back to Colonial times. This simple dessert probably came about when a housewife had a lump of dough left over from breadmaking and figured it would make a nice topping for fruit, which usually meant apples. Apple pandowdy was immortalized in a 1940s song by Dinah Shore, where she rhapsodized about the dessert’s ability “to make the sun come out when heavens are cloudy.”

Today, pandowdies aren’t limited to apples and bread doughs. Here, a round of rich, pre-baked pastry is set over a mix of spliced peaches and blueberries.

Spiced Peach-Blueberry Pandowdy.

Buckle

A buckle, a tender yellow cake topped with fruit and a streusel topping, is a kind of crumb cake. My version features a rich yellow cake batter with fresh apricots and raspberries, both in the cake and on top. Just what “buckle” means is uncertain. Most likely it has to do with the fact that the streusel topping sinks (or buckles) into the cake at irregular intervals, but maybe it’s just that your knees will buckle when you taste how delicious it is. Be that as it may, buckles are easy to make and beautiful to look at. This dessert is best when very fresh, but leftovers are delicious for breakfast.

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