Life is full of uncertainties. What will your life look like 20 years from now? Could your day have been drastically different if you woke up 15 minutes earlier? What would Joan Rivers look like if she’d never gone under the knife?
But one thing is certain: If there is an apple crisp or crumble on a dessert menu, Roger and I will order it with a non-negotiable scoop of vanilla ice cream.
What is it about apple crisps and crumbles that makes us weak? For me, it’s the package deal — warm, gooey apples tucked beneath crunchy, buttery streusel, with a stream of melting ice cream dripping into the crevices. Gooey, crunchy, creamy, sweet — what more do you need??
In the crisp vs. crumble debate, I define them according to Nancy Silverton’s rule: crisps tend to use nuts, whereas crumbles tend to use oats. Call me an equal opportunity employer, but I love them both.
To be honest, it’s pretty hard to mess up a crisp or crumble. But there are certain additions that can give the recipe a kick.
My favorite? Browned butter and a vanilla bean. Browning the butter imparts a nutty flavor and intensifies the caramel flavor of the cooked apples. And browning the butter with a vanilla bean — whose aromatics are fat soluble — adds another caramelly note.
When it comes to these humble desserts, you can dress them up anyway you want, but for me the story is always the same: give me a spoon, get out of my way and get ready for me to beat you to the last bite. I assure you, there’s no uncertainty about that.
Adapted from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from La Brea Bakery
For the filling:
7 to 8 (3 lbs) large, tart green apples such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into 3/4″ cubes
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons apple juice or water
For the streusel:
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1″ cubes and frozen
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons old-fashioned rolled oats
In a large bowl, toss together the apples and sugars. Set aside for about 1 hour, until the apples begin to release their juices.
While the apples are macerating, prepare the topping. In the work bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt and pulse until they are mixed together. Sprinkle the cubed butter over the flour mixture and pulse on and off until the mixture has the consistency of coarse meal.
Transfer the flour mixture to a bowl and, using your hands, toss in the oats until combined. Chill until ready to use.
Preheat the oven to 425ºF and have ready a 9″ x 13″ pan.
To finish the filling, cut the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape the seeds into a tiny bowl or onto a dish. Place a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and begin to melt the butter. Add the vanilla bean seeds and pod to the melted butter. Swirl the pan so that the butter cooks evenly and doesn’t burn. The butter will bubble somewhat vigorously as it browns. Continue cooking until the bubbling subsides and the butter is brown and gives off a toasty, nutty aroma (about 3 minutes).
Remove the vanilla bean and pour the browned butter over the apples, tossing them together to combine. In a small bowl, mix together the cornstarch and apple juice or water until smooth. Pour through a strainer over the apples, and toss everything together one more time.
Transfer the apples to the baking dish. Crumble the topping over the apples, squeezing it together in your fist to create a coarse, uneven, lumpy texture.
Place the dish on a baking sheet, and bake the crumble for 35 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 375ºF and bake for another 50-55 minutes, rotating the pan once or twice, until the top is nicely browned and the juices are caramelized (this will feel like too long, but rotating the pan will help it cook fully and evenly).
Allow the crumble to cool for at least 20 minutes before serving. It is best served on the day it is made, but you could make it earlier in the day and reheat it at 350 for about 15 minutes before serving.
Serve with vanilla ice cream.
Yield: 10-12 servings