On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We’ll be visiting Sam’s family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom’s lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam’s younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs — of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we’re at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts — in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
When I’m traveling, generally the last thing I want to be bothered with are recipes. Vacation should feel a bit more effortless and haphazard and not as structured or delineated. And fruit crisp is one of the things I feel confident just kind of throwing together: I can eyeball the amount of fruit, add a few tablespoons sugar and a bit of cornstarch or flour. Maybe lemon juice if we’ve got it. And then I work some butter into a blend of flour, oats and brown sugar until it starts coming together in clumps and bake it until the fruit starts bubbling up through the crisp layer in vibrant, jammy hues. This year though, I thought it would be useful to actually get my recipe down in writing — so I’d always have it at the ready to glance at should I forget or should you want to make a pan in your own kitchen or while traveling and cozying up in someone else’s.
The version you see here is one that will be repeated in a week or so in a small, funky kitchen in upstate New York. It’s a whole grain fruit crisp with a bit less sugar than other recipes you’ll see floating around the internet — and I add a generous handful of chopped toasted nuts for added crunch. If you’re a fruit crisp purist, perhaps you won’t be into that but I’d encourage you to try it before knocking it. This recipe can be made with any fruit you’d like: summer berries are obviously great but apples, pears or stone fruit work beautifully, too. This version is a Raspberry Rhubarb crisp, and was a bit on the tart side (which I loved) with plenty of that buttery, toasty crisp topping that I swear I could eat all on its own.
I ended up bringing this one to our book club a few weeks ago. Not only had I not read the book this time around, but I actually didn’t even know what book we were to read. I told myself next month I’ll do better and even had a delusional moment thinking how much reading I could get done on the plane (I know, I know). But the nice thing is that when you show up somewhere clutching a warm fruit crisp, it doesn’t really matter. I hope the simplicity and adaptability of this recipe encourages you to show up somewhere clutching one, too.
While this recipe will work with any fruit, it’s worth saying something about sugar. The formula below was perfect for my Raspberry Rhubarb crisp, but for my tastes it was a touch on the sweet side when I made this with all strawberries the week before. I would say if you use a naturally very sweet fruit like strawberries or stone fruits, I would probably go down to 2 tablespoons of sugar in the filling. Of course, if you like a slightly sweeter, jammier filling keep it just as is. As for the flour, I’ve tried this recipe with 100% whole wheat flour, barley and oat flour and all-purpose flour and it’s great each time. I think you could use any flour you’re excited about and likely have good results. Like most simple, humble desserts, spend a little time to make it your own. Then you’ll want to keep it in heavy rotation this season; I know we will.
For the Filling:
For the Topping:
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
In a medium bowl, toss together the fruit, sugar, lemon juice and cornstarch. Set aside.
In another medium bowl, whisk together the oats, flour, nuts, brown sugar and salt. Working with your fingertips, blend in the small cubes of butter until no dry spots remain; some of the butter will be fully incorporated while some will be in pea-size clumps.
Butter a 2-quart baking dish, scrape in fruit filling, and scatter topping on top. Avoid the temptation to press the topping into the fruit crisp — it should be sitting there loosely as that’ll help it clump when it bakes. Bake for 35-50 min, depending on the fruit you’re using. You want the top to brown evenly and, just as importantly, you want to see the juices from the fruit bubbling up through the crisp topping in places.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.