Cobblers and crisps aren’t the same thing. Nor is a cobbler a pie or a buckle, slump, grunt, sonker, pandowdy, or Betty (or Betsy). Each of these homey usually fruit-based desserts are easy to bake and similar, so who wouldn’t get a little muddled trying to figure out what’s what?
Apples are, and have been, the typical go-to fruit used in many of the desserts below. Think of those cozy classic dishes like apple crisp or apple dumplings. Back in the day, folks used apples out of necessity because they were plentiful and kept well. But bakers are a creative bunch. Now, we have the world’s fruit (and savory flavors) at our fingertips.
If you need simple desserts to make without a bunch of fuss or fancy ingredients then take a look at crisps, cobblers, pan dowdy, and the rest of the traditional hug-in-a-bowl fruit-based desserts below. They make the bleakest of days feel warm. Use the table of contents below to zip around and learn more.
Cookbooks Mentioned in this Article:
Everyone has their idea of what constitutes cobblers, crisps, crumbles, and the rest of the homey line of desserts. It does also matter WHERE you live. Read enough about a crisp and you’ll discover that a crumble is to the British what a crisp is to Americans. Same thing, different term.
Betty or Betsy: Fruit is layered with breadcrumbs or bread cubes (not just as a topping), and baked until golden brown and crispy. This colonial dessert seems to fall within the “pudding” category and was a favorite dessert of First Lady Nancy Reagan, according to The White House Family Cookbook.
Buckle: A streusel-topped cake with chunks of fruit in it, though not as dense or heavy as a coffee cake. As it bakes, the cake, well, buckles.
Clafoutis or Clafouti: C’est Francoise, oui oui! Okay, it’s been decades (!) since French class. I may or may not have written that correctly. Either way, I think you get the gist. Clafoutis is French in origin, usually made with black cherries (but you know how bakers get creative). Mark Bittman described a Clafoutis as “little more than a rich, sweet pancake batter poured over fruit and baked.” We won’t go into detail about this dessert, but since it sometimes gets lumped in with the rest, it’s worth including here.
Cobbler: Think: Thick topping. Some bakers use a pastry dough topper. Cobbler was the first pie, though later recipes nixed the bottom crust. President Woodrow Wilson, a lackluster eater, once gushed in a letter about his fondness for peach cobbler, as revealed in The President’s Cookbook. Cobbler, says Dictionary.com, once meant a “clumsy workman.” Kind of fitting for a clumsy-looking dessert.
Crisp: A 1910s invention, a crisp features fruit baked with a rolled oat, sugar, and butter topping. The best hosts serve it with a scoop of smooth ice cream to complement the crispness of the topping.
Crumble: A crisp’s cousin, a crumble uses the same fruit bottom layer, but the topping usually omits rolled oats, relying on butter, sugar, and flour to form a more streusel-like topping.
Duff: See Roly-Poly.
Dumplings: Associated with apples (though not historically the case), an apple dumpling is a peeled, cored, and pastry-wrapped apple. The best dumplings fill the core with butter, sugar, and spices. The dumplings can bake with a sauce or the sauce is added near the end of baking. The sauce thickens during baking, becoming syrupy. Some folks serve apple dumplings with milk, ice cream, cream, whipped cream, and/or extra sauce on the side.
Grunt: Stewed or steamed, a grunt is a stovetop dessert. Biscuit dough sits on top of the fruit.
Pandowdy: The bottom fruit layer is topped with a rolled pie crust. During baking, the crust is dowdied, or mashed up a little, so the juices can flow and caramelize the crust. The crust should be pressed lightly down and not completely submerged in the juicy fruit. Other folks wait until after baking to dowdy the crust, letting it cool so the juices absorb into the crust, and then serve the pan dowdy.
Roly-Poly: Edna Lewis considered it a Southern dessert, while I saw other recipes that declared it an Eastern staple. In the UK, it’s considered a classic dessert, though made with a jam filling. “Jam roly-poly, shirt-sleeve pudding, dead man’s arm or dead man’s leg is a traditional British pudding probably first created in the early 19th century. It is a flat-rolled suet pudding, which is then spread with jam and rolled up, similar to a Swiss roll, then steamed or baked. In days past, Jam Roly-Poly was also known as shirt-sleeve pudding, because it was often steamed and served in an old shirt-sleeve, leading to the nicknames of dead-man’s arm and dead man’s leg,” shares Great British Puddings.com. My 1973 revised Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook includes a Cherry Roly-Poly (page 639) in its “Steamed Desserts” section, instructing cooks to begin with their shortcake biscuit recipe. My (1944) The Good Housekeeping Cookbook also uses a basic biscuit recipe for their apple roly poly recipe (page 632).
Slump: The Oxford Dictionary says a slump is “a sudden severe or prolonged fall in the price, value, or amount of something.” What’s interesting is that the dictionary also shares how the word has 17th century origins likely related to a Norwegian word, “slumpe,” with similar meaning. So named because the apples and doughy topping sink as it cooks.
Sonker: A deep-dish, crowd-friendly dessert specific to Surry County, North Carolina. It often uses a sweet potato filling, but some bakers use other fruits instead. Debate rages over whether the sonker is pastry lined and how.
Amazing, don’t you think? Look at all of these cozy fruit dessert relatives. It’s so fall, y’all (but as a long-time (former) Midwesterner, I had to Google how to properly write y’all).
Colonial Desserts: Grunts, Slumps, Brown Betty (or Betsy), and Cobbler
Think about colonial times and you probably think of back-breaking labor, near starvation, and backstabbing your friends. But there was more to the period from 1607-1776, or what we mean when we say “the colonial times.”
Yes, starvation was probably looming forever in the backdrop, especially for the New England colonists who faced a shorter growing season and were more dependent upon ships sailing into their harbors to keep their pantries filled, than the middle or southern Colonies. Using available food, and making it something closer to what you had at “home,” would have been important for their health, both mental and otherwise.
What better way to celebrate a successful harvest than with a feast?
The feast considered to be the first Thanksgiving took place in the Plymouth colony in 1621. It was referred to at the time as “The Harvest Celebration of 1621” rather than “Thanksgiving,” although regular feasts of thanksgiving were held throughout the Colonial era. (Thanksgiving wasn’t declared a national holiday until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War.) The 1621 celebration took place after the Pilgrims had weathered their first brutal winter in the New World, followed by their first successful planting and harvest seasons.Jennifer Anderson, A Colonial Thanksgiving Menu Inspired By the Foods the Pilgrims Ate, Martha Stewart, November 06, 2018.
Thanksgiving was something a bit more fluid then. “For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November,” shares History.com.
That was mostly due to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale. She was a magazine editor, writer, and the major force behind making Thanksgiving a holiday. You know her as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
In early New England, the Puritans replaced Roman Catholic feast days like Christmas and Easter with secular holidays like Training Day and Commencement Day. Thanksgiving days and Fast days had a religious purpose: to come together as a community for meditation and communing with God.
New England’s theocratic governments called for public days of fasting or thanksgiving in response to political or natural events. They could happen several times a year. And they were often local affairs.
Thanksgiving was often delayed for weeks or months if that all-important shipment of molasses hadn’t arrived. In fact, that’s exactly what one town did. The New England Historical Society article (mentioned above) shares:
In 1705, November 4 had been proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving. But as the day approached, Colchester had almost no molasses. Worse, nothing could be delivered on the frozen river to the settlement.
The Colchester postponement of Thanksgiving was still a noteworthy event over 100 years later, with a poem included in the 1908 edition of Good Housekeeping. Not only can you read the whole thing, at the link above, but you can read it for free.
Sugar was expensive and not yet widely available. Who could afford it? The name of the game, at this point, was survival. I can’t hear the word “survival” without thinking of “survivle” or this:
Colonists used maple syrup more often than molasses, but for New England colonists especially, molasses was the prime sweetener. According to the New England Historical Society, by 1750, colonists consumed an average of three quarts of molasses a year.
I decided to make a quick little graphic to show you how much 3 quarts of molasses would be in terms of cups, since I figured cups are much easier to grasp visually. That is a LOT of molasses! In our home, we use about 3-4 jars of molasses a year. That may bump up an extra jar since I’ve discovered the joy that is gingerbread cake, but we still aren’t anywhere NEAR the 1750 average, and I think we probably use more than the typical family. We love gingerbread scones, what can I say?
It’s no secret that colonists took their desserts seriously. While pumpkins were preached as something akin to the devil by those fun-loving Puritans, (no, really), sweeteners like molasses and maple syrup were used in a variety of desserts and as a most welcome end to the evening meal.
Of course, in those early years of colonization, fruit wasn’t cultivated and largely sour. The European honeybee would be brought over in 1620, and give growing crops a boost in production (fossil evidence reveal bees were here once before, but died out). Colonists had to rely on sweeteners to make the available produce palatable and, I would think, to mimic those fond flavor memories found back at home overseas.
The New England settlers devised a number of desserts made with apples and also with huckleberries which, in their cultivated form, were sometimes called blueberries. Most of these desserts were prepared in true New England fireplace-cookery tradition by steaming. The sweetened fruit would be turned into a deep pot, topped with a dough mixture, tightly covered as for a steamed pudding, and suspended over the fire until the fruit was cooked tender and syrupy, and the topping was moistly cakelike or dumplinglike (sic). The dish was always served warm, usually with thick cream poured generously over the top.
Nobody seemed to know what to call these delectable, filling desserts, but pretty soon people began to talk about “apple slump” and “blueberry grunt.” The names somehow fit. A slump was heavy and just seemed to collapse out of sheer weariness when it was dished out of the cooking pot onto a plate, especially if the steamed topping hit the plate first and was smothered with the thick fruit mixture and the cream. A grunt, which was really exactly the same thing as a slump, might have earned its name from the grunts of satisfaction of those who spooned down its melting goodness. Or could the name have had something to do with those grunts of digestive distress and discomfort due to overindulgence following a heavy meal?
. . . .
Sometimes the fireplace oven was used to bake a deep-dish pie called apple pandowdy. The authentic pandowdy of colonial New England was homely, even ugly in appearance but exquisite in taste. “Dowdy” in those days seemed to have another meaning besides plain or old-fashioned; it meant “to chop.” The New England housewife would bake her apple dessert just until the crust was turning crisp and golden. Then she would take it out of the oven and “dowdy” or chop the crust and the apples together into large pieces right in the baking dish or “pan,” bake it a little longer, drizzle it with molasses, and serve it up warm with thick, sweet cream.
By the 1640s, apple orchards were well-established, so says WhatsCooking.net. The bees were pollinating and colonists had apples galore. Most would have welcomed the variety, except for those few religions who held little regard for the enjoyment of food. “Apples, stored in a well cared for root cellar, kept until the middle of winter and provided a fresh fruit treat for many desserts,” says The North Star Monthly.
Cooking and preservation methods didn’t leave much room for the fancy desserts we incorporate into our own diets. Instead, colonists turned to boiling, steaming, and baking their desserts (and the rest of their meals). You’ve heard of a New England Boiled Dinner, right? That’s a thing for a reason: Everything was boiled or steamed or baked then.
In Good Maine Food (1939) there is an excerpt from a 1775 journal entry in which the author describes “Point Aux Tremble” In the evening before bedtime, the females of the house prepare the dinner of the following day. This was the manner: a piece of pork or beef, or a portion of each kind, together with a sufficiency of cabbage, potatoes, and turnips seasoned with salt, and an adequate quantity of water, were put into a neat tin kettle with a close lid.
The kettle was placed on the stove in the room where we all slept, and there it simmered till the time of rising, when it was taken to a small fire in the kitchen where the stewing continued till near noon, when they dined.
That’s where cobblers and brown betty come into play. These no-fuss desserts combined the ingredients you would have had at your disposal. Using up stale bread in a more delicious way was a bonus.
Apple Brown Betty
In the 1990s movie Clueless, Cher (played by Alicia Silverstone) uses the term “betty” to describe someone gorgeous or beautiful. The apple brown Betty is an eye-catcher.
Unlike other apple desserts, sweetened crumbs are placed in layers between the fruit and it is served with lemon sauce or whipped cream, which gives the dessert more of a pudding texture versus a pie filling. That’s why Apple Brown Betty can also be called apple pudding.Tracy Briggs, Apple Brown Betty, Apple Crisp, and Apple Cobbler: What’s The Difference Between These Desserts?, Duluth News Tribune, September 30, 2019.
But this simple dessert may be named for a woman.
The name [Apple Brown Betty] seems to have first appeared in print in 1864, when an article in the Yale Literary Magazine listed it … with tea, coffee, and pies as things to be given up during ‘training’ [physical training, what we call working out]. That author gave brown in lower case and Betty in upper case: and, in default of evidence to the contrary, it seems best to go along with the view that Betty is here a proper name.The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson (2014), Page 78-89.
While a brown betty was first written in print in 1864, that wasn’t the first mention of this dessert. If you go back to 1856, and the Every Lady’s Cook Book by Mrs. T. J. Crowen in 1856 (Kiggins & Kellogg publishers), you’ll see a mention for an Apple Brown Betsey.
I wondered if “Betty” had other meanings too, if it was an outdated term we non-colonial era humans don’t use or understand anymore. All I found was a Bess Beetle or a Betsy Beetle and, apparently, people say, “crazy as a Betsey bug.” According to Word-Detective, “There is, however, also the expression “crazy as a Bessie bug,” meaning “agitated, irrational, erratic,” which is apparently common in the southern US states and has been since at least the late 19th century.
The “Bessie” bug, also known as the “Betsey bug,” “Betsy beetle,” “Bess bug” and variants thereof, is a member of the Passalidae family of beetles and also sometimes goes by the monikers “horn beetle,” “patent-leather beetle” and “pinch bug.”
Even though, in that case, “Betsey” refers to a beetle, while other regions say it means a bedbug. I was hoping maybe dates would align and a brown betty would have been a simple dessert people went nuts over! Then again, I did find this intriguing comment on the “Bessie bug, crazy as a” article: “In the winter time when fire wood is burned you can find bessie bug resting in or on the logs. These bugs just sit there and do not move even when they are placed in the heat. Yes they move slow from staying outside in the cold but it is crazy to stay on the log and die.”
Doesn’t a brown betty hang out in the oven for awhile? It’s a stretch. I know.
Even the dates don’t align. The late 19th century is a far cry from colonial times and the invention of the brown betty. Now, if that beetle had something to do with flour, I would wonder if it was a family joke, like a beetle was baked into the dessert, or some other mistake.
(page 140 image)
What’s more, it was common in colonial times to name desserts after a person, as mentioned in Delish. As the Oxford Companion to Food points out, the “Betty” is capitalized in the Yale piece. We can’t tell about Brown Betsey in the earlier work, because the whole title line is capitalized.
If a bullace is a small, wild plum used in baking back in those days and a pannikin was a metal container (two words my built-in spellcheck doesn’t recognize), then surely a betsy or a betty could have stood for something else, right?
But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Turns out that Betty wasn’t the old-fashioned, ruffle-aproned name I’d assumed it was, but a mixed-race woman, probably a servant, maybe a slave cook. “Brown” didn’t refer to what happens to those buttered breadcrumbs as the dish bakes, but to skin color. Social standing.John Birdsall, Apple Brown Betty, a Race-Based Dessert, Chowhound, February 23, 2012.
Betty or Betsey, they both share the same “ick” factor. In my mind, it hadn’t been any different than “Jessica’s Salad,” a cucumber and tomato Italian dressing-drenched pasta salad I loved so much as a kid, my Grandma renamed it. Who is to say that’s wrong either?
Maybe someone called it a Brown Betty because it’s the only color to ever come out of a random woman’s kitchen or maybe it was the same shade as some article of clothing worn by the inventor? Or maybe it was the slang of the day that we are somehow missing, and the term “betty” came long, long before the 1970s and the Clueless film. I mean, who even remembers the term from the movie in 2021? I’d say very few. And maybe I’ll refer to it by the “fruit + Betty” forever more “just in case.”
October 5 is National Apple Betty Day. I’ll be celebrating whatever woman is behind the making and sharing of this recipe because, as we know, people who share recipes are the best kind of people.
Where did the name for cobbler come from? General consensus agrees that the term “cobbler” could be due to the irregular forms the doughy topping takes on, reminiscent of a cobblestone path. I sort of want it to be due to the fact that the dish is kind of cobbled together: A little of this, a little of that. Nothing too precise.
Even cobblers have sub variations, it would seem.
Another kind of cobbler is a western deep-dish pie with a thick crust and a fruit filling. This dish is called Bird’s Nest Pudding or “crow’s-nest pudding” in New England, it is served with a custard but no topping in Connecticut, with maple sugar in Massachusetts, and with a sour sauce in Vermont.The Dictionary of American Food and Drink (1994) by John F. Mariani, Page 85.
It is an older recipe, appearing in The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Child (1829). This book was more than a cookbook. Aimed at low and “middling” class women, it contained advice on everything a woman needed to know to run a household. It assumed the reader did not have hired help. For 21 years after its first publication, the book underwent at least 35 printings, with a slight name change in 1832’s eighth printing. The Frugal Housewife was a title found in England from a different writer. So, The American Frugal Housewife it became.
I love that over a hundred years later, Marguerite Patten (of the UK) included bird’s nest pudding in one of her cookbooks (Victory Cookbook (2002), Page 137). Although recipe contained some differences, it’s not a shock. The Victory Cookbook featured familiar recipes that could be made during the war using ration stamps, so you can see why perhaps these changes were necessary. Remember, eggs were rationed then and folks had to resort to dry eggs so that could account for the custard base swap. It makes sense.
Long after the war, folks apparently still made birds nest pudding. Take a look at the gem I discovered below:
Birds’-nest pudding was to Mother Wilder’s generation what apple brown betty is to ours—a standard apple dessert with many individual variations. Whole peeled and cored apples were basic, the “nest” in which they were baked might be a custard, biscuit dough, or pie pastry. This New England version once used maple sugar and has a truly fluffy crust that is handsome as it is delicious.Barbara M. Walker, The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories (1979), Page 126.
How interesting! Barbara implies that the betty was commonplace. Interesting as how it isn’t something I had ever made or even heard of before beginning research on cobblers and crisps. But then again, it must be something I had read about and forgot. One year in elementary school, I had a teacher offer up some postcards of Laura Ingalls Wilder if you read all the books.
Well, I used to be sick over a good portion of the winter. It would be decades before I learned that I had a coughing (not wheezing) asthma and that allergies were to blame for what seemed like the flu. I know how to keep it controlled now so it doesn’t get too bad, but then I spent a lot of time so sick and exhausted that I couldn’t do much more than read for long periods at a time.
So, I read ALL of the “Little House” books. I admit, by the end I was SO COMPLETELY OVER the books (the first book was my favorite). But, I was invested.
I had to reach out to my mom to see if it was something she was familiar with or not. She had heard of it, but it must not have been a thing in their Chicago suburb when the “Little House” cookbook was published.
Today, we seem to stick to the cobbler, at least that’s all I saw in Indiana (and I did a ton of traveling around the state for a good solid decade). Here’s one final description of a cobbler to see us off:
“An American term for a deep-dish pie of cooked fruit (often apple or peach) with a thick crust on top.”The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson (2014), Page 199.
As we’ve learned before, new American settlers wanted to mimic their comfort food from home (in this case, the UK). But, they had to work with what they had. And what they had, if you remember what you read above, were apples (and plenty of them).
Today, we make cobblers with all manner of fruit (and even savory flavors). It may have begun in the eastern United States, but it’s found everywhere, and in every variation. Now, it’s time for a southern detour with the sonker below.
I had never heard of a sonker and I’m guessing the majority of you haven’t either. That’s because a sonker is hyper regional specific dessert you’ll find in Surry County, North Carolina. Since it’s new to me, and the subject of great debate in an area with not quite 72,000 people, it’s worth a closer look.
Most people seem to agree that the essential characteristics of sonkers are these: They are juicier than cobblers. They are deeper than cobblers. They used to be made in what Southern country cooks called bread pans. Deep, square and designed to fit exactly inside a wood-burning stove, bread pans were pressed into service throughout the day for biscuits and, in Surry County, for sonkers.Kim Severson, Sonkers, Grunts, Slumps and Crumbles, The New York Times, July 1, 2013.
Even among articles about sonkers, people disagree as to what should go into a sonker. Some believe a sonker is only made with sweet potatoes, while others use any manner of fruit. Some call the pan it goes into a “bread pan” or a “pudding pan,” while many modern cooks appear to use a 9×13 glass baking dish.
The debate continues when it comes to the crust. Some sonker recipes call for lining the bottom of a rectangular baking dish with pastry. Others say only to line the sides. Many specify a lattice-work crust on the top. Some have a layer of pastry in the middle. One recipe omits the crust, instead pouring a batter made of flour, sugar, and milk on top to bubble up between the fruit.Andrea Weigl, A Foothills Twist on Pie: The Sonker, Our State, January 30, 2014.
“And then there is the “dip,” also (less frequently called) milk dip, a sweet, thickened milk flavored with vanilla extract or spices, such as cinnamon or allspice. It is served on top of the sonker,” wrote southern blogger Ms. Bee Bee. The Dip, a mixture of milk and sugar, has been likened to tasting something similar to sweetened condensed milk. Traditionally, dip is served on the side or poured over each serving, though I’ve seen some recipes that pour the dip on before baking.
Kristi, blog owner of Southern as a Biscuit, wrote: “My family made mostly strawberry and sweet potato sonkers and never made the ‘sweet dip’ to go along side, though my husband’s family prefers blackberry sonker and would never skip the sweet dip.” I’ve read of other families serving it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or Cool Whip.
Either way, it is agreed that, like so many of our favorite “feels like home” kind of desserts, a sonker began as a way to feed a crowd and to stretch what you had in an appealing way.
It is believed that folks in Surry County made sonker as a way to stretch the usage of their fruit in tough times, or as a way to utilize fruit that is toward the end of its ripeness.What is Sonker?, Surry Sonker Trail, Accessed 1/20/2021.
If you want to try it out for yourself (and of course you do), get an authentic sonker by hitting the Sonker Trail. You’ll find sonker on the menu at the five restaurants, bakeries, or cafes found in or around Elkin, Mount Airy and the Village of Rockford in Surry County, North Carolina. Or hit the annual Sonker Festival hosted by the Surry County Historical Society. Who knew?
Apple Pan Dowdy
Not quite a pie, though it does involving baking fruit under a crust, yet it’s not a crisp either, though it uses baked apples. An apple pan dowdy, sometimes written as apple pandowdy, resembles both these desserts in a way. But, it has a twist of its own.
This colonial-era dessert was a favorite with Abigail Adams, the wife of second US president John Adams. It was made with apples, most likely a Newtown Pippin apple. Granny Smith Apples hadn’t yet made their way over from Australia and wouldn’t until 1972. Abigail was the first first lady to live in the President’s House, what we later called the White House, though it wasn’t exactly fun since the President’s House was largely unfinished. How unfinished? The roof leaked, the grand stairs hadn’t been started yet, and most rooms weren’t completed and unfurnished.
“Although Adams was initially enthusiastic about the presidential mansion, he and Abigail soon found it to be cold and damp during the winter. Abigail, in a letter to a friend, wrote that the building was tolerable only so long as fires were lit in every room. She also noted that she had to hang their washing in an empty “audience room” (the current East Room),” says History.com. The new capitol itself was surrounded by wilderness, yet Abigail still entertained for the less than five months they lived in the White House. John and Abigail genuinely loved each other, and wrote over 1,000 letters over the months and years that John had to be away.
Abigail was one amazing lady. She’s remembered for her desire for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and female education.
Abigail herself passionately supported independence, and famously argued that it should be applied to women as well as men. During the Second Continental Congress, as John Adams and his fellow delegates debated the question of formally declaring independence from Great Britain, Abigail wrote to her husband from their home in Braintree, Massachusetts, on March 31, 1776:
“And, by the way, in the New Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors … Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no Voice, or Representation.”
Abigail loved apple pandowdy, but how about that name? What is a pandowdy? You likely know that “dowdy” means something unattractive or frumpy. BUT, dowdy also describes a colonial-era baking technique. To “dowdy” is to chunk up the crust a bit. People have differing opinions as to whether the action occurs during baking (99% of the recipes and text I read) or after, as King Arthur Baking Company suggests.
Dowdying soaks some of the crusty parts with syrup and leaves some dry so it has an interesting variety of textures to experience.Marcia McCance, Easy Apple Pan Dowdy, Just a Pinch, Accessed 1/12/2021.
Both of these videos use different approaches to creating a pandowdy. I find that interesting. Look at all the things we are learning today!
Would you believe apple crisp, of all things, is a relatively new dessert? I had no idea. I guess I assumed it was super old. It has that whole look about it, don’t you think? Apple crisp was invented in the 1910s (maybe). Bon Appetit writer Emma Wartzman found an Oxford English Dictionary reference dating 1916. Well, when I put it like that, it doesn’t seem all that new, but when you consider the majority of desserts in this article, and the age of other favorites, like cookies or cake, then yes, a dessert crisp is new.
But then again, maybe the crisp is older than we think.
. . . . Homey fruit cobblers, crumbles, crisps, and Betties were so commonplace and simple to prepare that few nineteenth century cookbooks bothered giving recipes for them. All the cook had to do was put some fruit in a baking pan, sweeten it with sugar and molasses, add a bit of spice, and top it with some biscuitlike dough or pastry. If she wanted shortcake, she baked the biscuit dough first, then split and filled it with the fresh fruit.Greg Patent, Baking in America (2002), page 433.
That makes a lot of sense, don’t you think? After all, how many of us own or have seen vintage cookbooks or recipe cards offering little in the way of instruction or measurement. Why would you need detail, or even something written down, when you had been preparing the same dish since you were old enough to help? You could make it in your sleep (and probably just about had).
Many recipes handed down through a family were no more than a simple a handwritten list of ingredients. There was no specific instructions telling the woman of the house what to do with them. Mothers and daughters in the Colonies were expected to already know how to properly mix the ingredients. They had been carefully taught all these things while growing up.Robert W. Pelton, Early American Baking Recipes from the Colonial Period, Infinity Publishing, Accessed 1/20/2021.
Jamestown colonists planted oats back in 1611, says Encyclopedia.com. True, colonists did have to feed livestock, but oats still found their way into common meals.
Oats appeared in many dishes from porridge — a soft food made by boiling oatmeal in water or milk — to “flummery,” a jelly-like substance made of flour and oatmeal, flavored with spices and dried fruit.Colonial Culture: Cuisine, Small Planet Communications, Accessed 1/20/2021.
You have likely had a crisp in the past. It was a favorite in my Midwestern school lunchroom cafeteria once upon a time (unless it had been sitting for too long…and then it was just a gloppy, congealed mess). A delicious apple crisp has a bumpy, slightly crunchy texture on the top-most layer. Butter and sugar may be the common binders, but rolled oats are sometimes switched out for other items (like graham crackers, according to my Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook (1956) and however else people got creative and used what’s on-hand or what’s unlikely to cause an allergic reaction.
Rescue breakfasts from boredom and offer a sweet surprise: warm Butterscotch-Apple Crisp (make ahead, reheat in the morning) served with a splash of heavy cream. Who’ll miss the toast?Toll House Heritage Cookbook (Revised Edition, 1980) , page 114.
I’m already completely smitten with Ruth Reichl’s Fresh Peach Breakfast Cobbler (and make it every one to two weeks in the colder months. I’m hooked!). Why wouldn’t I add a nice apple crisp to the mix? Now, that’s a plan, Stan.
Neighbor Donna gifted us a bushel of apples from her family farm one year, several houses ago. A friend had mentioned that she had made apple dumplings and eaten one for breakfast. Since that sounded like something I could totally get behind, I hunted down a good recipe.
My superhero skill is this: I have a knack for picking a fantastic recipe every time. For real, yo. It must be from when my mom used to read out recipe ingredients when I was a kid and say, ‘Doesn’t that sound good?” No idea, mom. Except, now I do.
One of my favorite memories are of the four of us messing with that bushel of apples. The kids and my husband took turns using the apple peeler and corer, though the youngest mostly ate the peels (let’s be honest here). We broke out the fancy pants juicer, too. It was a fun and messy afternoon.
I made apple dumplings like there was nobody’s business. We were hooked! Then I froze the extra apples for MORE apple dumplings. But as it turns out, apples weren’t the original filling for the dumpling. Not at all.
Dumplings, sans apple, have been around a long time and in many cultures. But WITH apples? That’s an American innovation (right thur, right thur). Of course, anyone who makes an apple dumpling is likely a witch:
The theory that apple dumplings were invented in America is supported by the furor they caused in 17th-century New England. Unable to understand how whole apples could be encased in pastry, suspicious folks in Massachusetts accused a dumpling maker of being a witch. Brought to trial, this colonial Betty Crocker baked another batch in court and was exonerated. And she probably shared the recipe with the elders’ wives, too.Pat Strauss, When the Brisk Winds Blow, the Sweet and Spicy Taste of Apple Desserts is a Great Way to Warm Your Heart, The Morning Call, October 24, 1984.
That is messed up. Really, I want to use stronger language there. But can you even? What a great way to stifle creativity.
Let’s get back to apple dumplings and their history. Now, apple dumplings are believed to be a Pennsylvania invention (I LIVE in Pennsylvania now so that probably means I need to eat more apple dumplings. I’m sure that’s how that works).
Most farms had a garden and an orchard with apples and other fruit. In Berks County, it was also common to plant fruit trees along roadsides or other boundaries. (When my family moved into our Berks County home in the mid-1990s, it did not have an orchard, but pear trees grew along a fence in front of the house, a nod to a traditional way families grew fruit long ago.) Planting a fruit tree was an act of hope, expressing a desire to stay rooted in one place since, unlike other crops, a fruit tree takes many years to mature.Rebecca Talbot, A Brief History of Pennsylvania Orchards, Weaver Orchards, November 15, 2017.
Berks County hosts an apple dumpling festival each year (it’s linked below). I do enjoy the sentiment behind planting fruit trees. But, I share this piece for a reason. Remember, apples were pretty big for colonists and, as you can see above, the trend to keep planting fruit trees didn’t die out.
As decades ticked by, and they kept using apples, it’s natural that at some point, people would have come up with an alternative use for leftover pie pastry. And aren’t we all glad they did? The Art Of Cookery by Hannah Glasse includes two versions of apple dumplings (and other recipes for non-apple dumplings, such as hard dumplings and yeast dumplings).
Some places are such fans of the apple dumpling, they dedicate festivals to it.
Apple Dumpling Festivals:
Willow Glen Park (since 1954) in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania
Ephrata Cloister (since the 1980s) in Ephrata, Pennsylvania
Whispering Hills Jellystone Park in Big Prairie, Ohio
Downtown Stuart in Stuart, VA
Downtown Atwood (since 1994) in Atwood, Illinois
—and even an Apple Dumpling Day festival:
Elroy City Park in Elroy, Wisconsin.
And, of course, September 17th is National Apple Dumpling Day. I love any excuse to celebrate food. To celebrate with food. Both of those things.
A Long History of Quick Baked Fruit Dishes
The humble baked fruit dishes aren’t as boring historically as you may have thought. Funny to think I thought I wouldn’t find anything interesting to share. The next time you whip up a sonker, say it is something only Surry, North Carolina folks know. When you next dish out an apple pandowdy, you’ll remember it was a favorite of Abigail Adams too. Serve a dumpling and share the silly story of the poor woman tried as a witch. Talk about baking under pressure!
Fortunately, none of these desserts are high-pressure, big-ticket, spend all day in the kitchen kind of items. Inexpensive, filling, and comforting, they make any meal feel that much cozier. Having a unique history to tell makes them even better.
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