If ever there were a surefire candidate for the grace-under-pressure award in the dessert world, it would be the humble fruit crisp. Equally appealing in summer and winter, the fruit crisp is the last-minute-dinner-party-host’s best friend. Just cut up the fruit-some of my favorites are peaches, plums, nectarines, apples, pears, apricots, cherries, and berries-toss with lemon juice, sugar, and a flavoring, slide into a baking dish, and sprinkle on a quick-to-make crumbly topping. Pop it in the oven and, in less than an hour, dessert is ready and your home is filled with the aromas of fruit, butter, sugar, and spice. No rolling, chilling, fluting, or glazing-just endless compliments and many satisfied guests. A scoop of vanilla ice cream has yet to find a more meaningful relationship.
As simple as crisps are, they’re also tremendously flexible. Almost any fruit that works in a pie will work in a crisp. You can be creative, pairing peaches with ginger, for example. Or you can be a minimalist, using nothing more than fresh fruit, lemon juice, and a classic crumb topping. The formula stays the same no matter which way you go, as you’ll see in the method below. Glance over it and you’ll realize you don’t need a formal recipe to make a crisp, just a bowl of ripe fruit for inspiration.
Heat the oven to 375°F.
Combine 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, a pinch of table salt, 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon (optional) or 1/8 tsp. grated or ground nutmeg (optional) in a medium bowl. With your fingertips, rub in 8 Tbs. slightly softened unsalted butter that’s been cut into pieces, until it’s well blended and the mixture crumbles coarsely; it should hold together when you pinch it. If you like, mix in one of the topping add-ins (see options below). Refrigerate the topping until ready to use.
Choose one topping add-in (optional)
Fruits that are in season together make great combinations; think of Bing cherries and apricots in early summer, peaches and berries at summer’s height, and apples and pears in fall and winter. Berries, cherries, and rhubarb, work best when they’re used in combination, either with one another or with other fruit. They’re either too tart or mushy to use on their own.
Cut your chosen fruit (see options below) into even-size pieces: 1/2-inch pieces for firmer fruit, 3/4-inch pieces for tender fruit. You want a total of 6 cups of fruit.
Choose one or two fruits
Taste the fruit and sprinkle on 2 tablespoons to 1/3 cup sugar. For less ripe or tart fruit (like rhubarb) use more sugar; for sweet, ripe fruit, use less.
In a small dish, dissolve your cornstarch in 1 Tbs. lemon juice. The amount of cornstarch depends on your chosen fruit: 1 tsp. for denser fruit, like apples and pears, 1 Tbs. for juicier fruit such as berries, and 2 Tbs. for rhubarb. Pour the cornstarch slurry over the fruit.
Use restraint when mixing in spices, extracts, zests, or dried fruit. These ingredients can add an interesting dimension, but too many ingredients muddy the flavor and overwhelm the fruit.
Gently toss your chosen flavorings into the fruit.
Choose one or two flavorings (optional)
The topping is my favorite part of the crisp, so I blanket it on thickly. But if it’s too thick, the bottom layer of topping doesn’t really get crisp. The solution I’ve devised is to sprinkle on only half the topping, bake for 20 minutes, sprinkle on the rest, and then bake until done , another 15 to 35 minutes. This way, the first half gets a head start on browning and crisping, so you get less of a gooey layer next to the fruit.
Pour the fruit mixture into an 8- or 9-inch square (or similar-capacity) glass or ceramic baking dish. (You could also divide the fruit into small ramekins for individual crisps;just remember that the cooking time will be shorter). Set the pan on a baking sheet to catch overflowing juices. Top the fruit with half of the topping (refrigerate the other half) and bake for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle the remaining topping over the crisp and continue baking until the fruit is tender when pierced with a knife, the topping is crisp, and the juices are bubbling, another 15 to 35 minutes, depending on the fruit (apples take more time; berries take less). Let cool for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve warm.
Crisps are best served the same day they’re made, as the topping tends to absorb the fruit’s juices and become soggy. If you fancy it for breakfast, however, you can reheat day-old crisp in a 400°F oven.
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