Fruit and pastry are the essentials. The pastry doesn't have to be elegant, necessarily, but it can be light.
That's the rule for cobblers and their first cousins, the strudels -- desserts and breakfast snacks that, starting now, will be appropriate for the first berries of spring and the tree fruits of summer.
Cobblers, of course, have one of the most dug-in, down-homecountry images in the history of United States fare, but there's no reason for the breed to stay typecast. It's time for cobblers to dress up and come to the party.
This can be accomplished while still respecting the essential originality of the cobbler: what amounts to baking and stewing in the same operation.
Apples are particularly good choices for this culinary art form, especially since good cooking grades seem to be on supermarket shelves year 'round these days, including the livid and popular Granny Smiths. Things formerly only seasonal, such as red cooking apples also seem to be in more abundance and are good choices for the cobbler treatment.
Seasoning is the key to good cobblers, seasoning with an essence that complements but doesn't hide the real fruit flavor. In this regard, you can take hints from master chefs whose secrets are by no means too complex to bother with.
The New York pastry master, Nick Malgieri, makes a peach-raspberry cobbler that is seasoned with a 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract, a little nutmeg and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to 1/2 pint of raspberries and 10 or 12 peaches (or apples if you prefer) -- basically the proportions of a standard cobbler that, of course, includes pastry and butter and sugar in the usual amounts.
American country-style cobblers got a new twist in Southern chef Bill Neal's latest volume, "Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie," in which he comments at length on his grandma's clabber-based cobbler. In recreating the dish, he substitutes yogurt and cream for clabber, since the chances of readers having a tethered cow nearby are extremely low. (For the recipe see below.)
Mr. Neal's recipe touches the heart of the cobbler mystique in a simple way, giving it grandma's lift with the milk additions, a reminder that basically, the cobbler is just an informal pie in which the fruit has been allowed to perfume the dough. But a heavy result is hardly inevitable.
For starters, here is the classic apple cobbler, an 8-inch-square cake, most simply displayed in the "Fanny Farmer Cookbook." Spice it up at will and glamourize it with scoops of frozen yogurt on top. Match the ice cream or the yogurt with the flavor of the fresh fruit, or use the topping as an accent: butterscotch on apple, vanilla or lemon on berries, etc.:
From "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" (Knopf, 1987).
12 tablespoons butter
3 cups tart apples, peeled and sliced
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter and pour into an 8-inch-square cake pan. Spread it evenly and arrange apples over it. Mix 1/4 teaspoon of the salt with 1/4 cup of sugar and sprinkle evenly over apples; set aside. Melt the remaining 8 tablespoons of butter in a small pan, remove from heat, add milk and egg, and beat well. Mix flour, baking powder, the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt in a bowl. Stir in milk and egg mixture and beat until smooth. Pour over the apples and bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Serve from the pan in squares, fruit side up. Serve plain or with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream if you wish.
... Yes, Virginia, you or your mate can serve a barbecued blueberry cobbler practically right away as the first innovation in the annual patio rites. Just use this amazingly simple formula:
Barbecued blueberry cobbler
From "The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook," by Mildred Young (Hearst Books).
` 2 pints blueberries 1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 11-ounce package refrigerated heat-and-serve biscuits
1 1/2 cups heavy or whipping cream (optional)
Prepare outdoor grill for barbecuing. Meanwhile, in a heavy, 12-inch, all-metal skillet, stir blueberries, sugar, cornstarch, water and lemon juice until mixed. Top with biscuits and cover. Place skillet on grill over medium heat; cook 20 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Serve in dessert bowls with heavy cream if you like. (For range-top cooking, about 30 minutes before serving, prepare blueberry mixture with biscuits as above. Cook over medium low heat until blueberry mixture is hot and bubbly. Serve as above.) This goodie is 175 calories per serving without cream and 295 with.
Peach cobbler with clabber biscuits
From "Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie," by Bill Neal (Knopf, 1990).
6 cups peeled, pitted and sliced peaches
1/2 cup pitted sour cherries or raspberries
$ 4 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cup sugar
-- of cinnamon or nutmeg