Musing on summer tarts and cobblers

Two weeks ago I made a blueberry and nectarine cobbler, more or less sticking to the recipe from Thomas Keller’s book Ad Hoc at Home. My only variation was that I added nectarines too, not just blueberries. It was terrible; in my opinion the worst fruit cobbler I’ve ever made. The “cobbler” part became a gross, soggy layer of cake-like stuff on top of a too-thin layer of fruit. On the one hand, perhaps my pan was too big and the fruit spread out too much, but on the other hand, if the pan was too big, why did the topping (which was supposed to come out like individual dumplings) glob together into a single surface? Sucky recipe, bad quality control on the cookbook authors’ part, thereby reinforcing my dislike of celebrity chefs and their vanity cookbook projects.

Anyway, that disaster got me thinking about making another blueberry and nectarine cobbler. While I usually go for b&n pie with a proper crust, the time constraints of yesterday’s dinner party precluded putting in the time to make the crust. And Brooke wanted a cobbler.

So I started thinking what would make a good cobbler topping, and I remembered the success I had a long time ago making the caramel topping on pecan rolls. The basic idea is to press half a stick of butter into a cake pan, then layer on a cup or so of brown sugar. As the pecan rolls bake in the oven, the butter and sugar turn into caramel and infuse the pecan rolls with sticky goodness.

So I raided the fridge for some butter and discovered (horrors) that all I had left was a little blob of unsalted butter. But I also spied some clarified butter in a little container. Good enough, so I mixed the two and pressed them into the bottom of my cake pan. Being the good cook that I am, I licked the butter off my fingers—and discovered that the clarified butter wasn’t clarified butter, but rather left over butter-sage sauce!

It’s a funny thing but I am actually a pretty good taster of food (although I am not a very good taster of wine) (or else maybe I just drink a lot of swill) (but I digress). As I tasted the butter, I definitely tasted the sage, and I decided I was okay with that, but I could also taste a hint of garlic, and I was not okay with that. Since I had just crushed and chopped garlic for the sizzling shrimp I was going to make, I really had to think about whether it was my tongue tasting the garlic or my nose smelling it, and that gave me time to think about how the sage would work with the fruit.

I decided the garlic really was in the butter, and it had to go (actually I just added it to the oil I was going to use for the shrimp), and I grabbed a fresh stick of, sadly, salted butter. But I also decided that I really wanted the sage, so I trucked out to the garden to grab some sage leaves. My sage plant from several years got uprooted and didn’t survive this spring’s planting, so all I have is a variegated sage plant with lots of very small leaves. Still good, but I wanted the visual of the leaves, not just the flavor. Then I saw the lemon verbena plant we have growing next to the sage that we intended to use for tea but instead just let it grow. I remember Emma made some fruit dessert once—poached peaches I think—with lemon verbena in the sugar syrup, so I grabbed about 10 nice looking leaves along with the sage.

After washing all the leaves, I placed them in a sunburst pattern on top of the brown sugar I had pressed into the thick layer of butter. Then I added about a quarter of Julia Child’s apple crumble recipe crumble on top of the leaves so that I couldn’t see them any more, and then I tumbled alternating layers of nectarines and blueberries on top of that. Finally, when the fruit was about to the top of the cake pan, I topped it with the rest of the crumble topping (one cup oats, half cup flour, 6 tbsp butter, pinch of salt, 3/4 cup brown sugar, bzapper in the cuisinart to mix) and pressed it down firmly to make a solid layer of sugar-butter-oats.

My idea was to bake it for about an hour at 350 until I could see the caramel bubbling up the sides, and until I could see the fruit begin to bubble through the topping. Then I was going to flip the whole mess onto a big plate, so that the caramel and leaves ended up on top, and the crumble ended up on the bottom like a tart crust.

The results were visually disastrous, but the flavors were great. The few sage leaves really spiked the sugars and flavors of the fruit, and the lemon verbena added a hint of “mystery flavor” that is always fun in a dessert. The crumble crust didn’t add much for me, however, and I don’t think I’ll do that quite like that again.

Unfortunately, I used a completely wrong pan for the cake pan. I actually used a removable bottom pan, which was pretty stupid because a lot of the caramel seeped out onto the baking sheet (I’m not that stupid) rather than bubbling up the sides. And after I flipped the whole thing onto the serving platter, I realized this was just like a tarte tatin, and I could have made it in a cast iron skillet with a pie crust bottom.

So I’m going to make this again, but this time:

  1. use a cast iron pan
  2. maybe put the lemon verbena and sage leaves down first, then the butter, then the sugar, so that the leave show
  3. perhaps a graham cracker crust on top, so it holds together a bit more than the crumble, and gives a bit more crunch
  4. or else perhaps a puff pastry topping that becomes the bottoming, because how cool is it to have crispy puff pastry at the bottom of a oozy drippy fruit tart?

The best part about this dessert was its reception. I had a small serving and really liked the flavor, which is rare for me (I usually just eat my cooking rather than enjoy the flavors). After the first round there was about half the dessert still left on the plate. I mentioned that it looked like we hadn’t really made a dent in the dessert, and suddenly all the adults said they’d like more. In this day and age of low carbs and healthy eating, that’s a resounding success. Finally, when we were cleaning up, there was a very small serving left. I said—hah, we almost finished it!, whereupon Marc asked for a fork and finished it off right from the serving platter. A dessert that is all gone the night it was served is the best kind of dessert, in my opinion.

But while the flavors were great, there is room for improvement, and I have inspiration for more tarts and crumbles.

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