It’s probably impossible to make a rubbish crumble. Like pizza, heist movies, and advent calendars, even a ‘bad’ crumble is actually pretty good: soft stewed fruit and sweet, buttery crumbs, usually served with custard or cream – it’s hard to go terribly wrong. For me, crumble is one of my top comfort dishes, served with very thick, very cold custard (ideally from a carton; I am not a woman of complicated tastes).
But a truly excellent crumble can be hard to come by: finding that literal sweet spot between cakey and sandy is harder than it should be. If I’m making a crumble, I don’t want to end up with a cobbler, but I also don’t want the topping to go too far the other way, and end up with something dusty and mealy.
So, how to achieve that platonic middle ground topping which is simultaneously soft and crunchy, and holds together but is still, well, crumbly? A good proportion of butter helps, and chopped nuts and oats add texture, but the real key comes from Nigel Slater: sprinkle a scant tablespoon of water over the rubbed ingredients. This water isn’t enough to bind the mixture fully, but makes the whole thing more cohesive to create ‘small pebbles’; when it cooks, it should be crunchy on the top, soft beneath: perfect.
There are lots of crumble ‘hacks’ out there, and in pursuit of the ultimate crumble, I’ve tried them all. I’ve tried poaching fruit first, I’ve tried baking the crumble off and then sprinkling it over the fruit before a final blast in the oven; it all feels a bit too deconstructed for me. Marcus Wareing, in his How to cook the perfect… cookbook eschews fruit entirely, preferring just a bowl of baked crumbs. Isn’t this missing the point? The joy of a crumble is that it’s a bung-it-all-in dish, the volcanically-hot fruit bubbling up in the corners and making itself known. And honestly, I think the separate cooking malarkey is all a con, something that will just keep you in the kitchen longer when you could be walking the dog, or reading a book, or watching another episode of Selling Sunset.
There’s no need to soften the fruit in advance (unless you’re using quince, which does need a prior poach to stop it feeling like eating limestone), and it’s rarely necessary to sweeten the fruit, except for rhubarb which, if wincingly sharp, will benefit from having a judicious tablespoon of sugar tossed through it. The contrast between the naturally sweet-sharp fruit and the sweet-sweet crumble is what makes the pudding so delightful.
I often suggest tweaks and variations on the recipe I’ve given, but crumble takes the ability to customise to your tastes to whole new levels. Here I’ve used blackberries and apples, partly because they’re classic, and partly because they’re in season at the moment. In fact, both blackberries and apples have appeared early this year, brought in early by the bonkers heatwave we all endured, but if you’re looking to make the most of wild-growing blackberries, you will still find them, just a little further back, in the darker, cooler parts of bushes.
Crumble lends itself to most fruits: pears, plums, rhubarb, and gooseberries are all classics. But peaches and blueberries work, if you fancy a Southern American vibe, and raspberries, strawberries, redcurrants, cherries, cranberries and apricots will all work. At Christmas, I use mincemeat as a base for a festive but low-effort pud, and Dishoom, the restaurant, has a pineapple crumble on its menu that is probably in my top three crumbles of all time – and that’s a competitive field.
I love chopped nuts in my crumble, joining jumbo oats to create texture and an extra dimension of flavour, but I change these nuts depending on the fruit. Blackberries and hazelnuts love each other, so I love to use them together, but if I’m using pears or rhubarb, almonds are fantastic, either skin-on, chopped up relatively fine, or ground, and mixed through the flour. Pecans and walnuts are fantastic with plums peaches, and mixed berries, but prone to burning, so try to bury them in the crumble mix, to protect them. With pineapple, I like to add a little coconut.
I match my spices to my fruit too: cinnamon and apple are a classic, and that’s what you’ll find in the recipe below, but cardamom and pears are best friends, and pineapple is surprisingly great with pepper; with plums I like to use mixed spice – that tiny nudge of cloves will make them taste almost medieval.
I tend to make double or triple the amount of crumble topping I need, and then freeze the rest in air-tight boxes or ziplock bags so that I’m never more than an hour away from a crumble, without any additional fuss. I’d like to say that this is to make me a more efficient and effortless hostess, but in honesty, it is solely to cater to my own private crumble cravings.
Apple and blackberry crumble
Makes: Enough for six
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: 40 minutes
60g light brown sugar
100g salted butter
125g plain flour
30g chopped hazelnuts
1 tablespoon demerara sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large bramley apples
2 large eating apples
- Preheat the oven to 200°C.
- Peel and core the apples, and cut them into slices about an inch wide. Put them in the bottom of a large oven-safe dish, add the blackberries and gently mix together.
- In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour using your fingertips, until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir the light brown sugar though the mix, followed by the cinnamon, oats and hazelnuts. Drizzle a tablespoon of water into the mixture and stir until some of the mixture slightly clumps together.
- Spoon the crumble topping over the fruit, and then sprinkle the demerara sugar over the top.
- Bake for 40 minutes until the topping is golden, and the fruit is bubbling up at the edges. Allow to cool for ten minutes, then serve with custard or thick cream.