Cobbler choices couldn't be finer

Drought means good flavor for this year's fruit

August 07, 2002|By Suzanne White | Suzanne White,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When it comes to summer desserts, the cobbler is king. This old-time fruit dessert topped with dough is effortless to prepare on hot days and serves as the perfect vehicle to showcase the summer's harvest.

Nature has blessed the cobbler's essential ingredient - fruit - this year. Peaches are praiseworthy, blueberries and blackberries are bursting with flavor. What do we have to thank? Our prolonged dry spell.

"Most of Maryland is suffering a drought, and that tends to be good for fruit flavor because it concentrates the sugar in the fruit," says Tony Evans, who coordinates the Farmers' Market Program for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Evans loves Maryland peaches and understands how hard it is for a grower to produce an outstanding peach or any fruit.

"You have to fist-fight God for every peach. They are tricky," he says.

So, with our promising fruit forecast, this could be the year of the cobbler. With this in mind, whether you're an old hand at piecing together a cobbler or a first-timer, roll up those sleeves and start baking one of America's favorite warm-weather desserts.

Some say the cobbler's origin is Southern. Others attribute it to life on the farm when an easy recipe was needed for a bumper crop. Cobbler recipes are usually found alongside other fruit-filled classics like slumps, crisps and pies. But the humble cobbler has a quality few desserts can boast - an ability to evoke childhood memories of mothers, aunts and grandmothers preparing fruit in the kitchen, a light summer breeze mingling the aroma of berries, sugar and butter.

"My grandmother used to make cobblers all the time," says chef John Shields, who has introduced his beloved grandmother Gertie Cleary to readers by citing her recipes and cooking wisdom in his cookbooks.

Shields grew up in Parkville, where he and his boyhood pals would play in acres of old orchards, gobbling up what fruit they could pluck from the trees.

"Cobblers just bring back these amazing memories. They have so much flavor and fragrance," Shields says. "All summer we'd eat this wonderful fruit. We'd snag it up and bring it back in paper bags and plead for someone to make us a cobbler."

His grandmother had an "intuitive way of cooking," which she applied to her summer cobblers, Shields says. "She used so much of this, so much of that, and she used her fingers to cut in the butter."

Her cobblers were polished off by nightfall. Shields recalls her checking through the house asking, "Where'd that cobbler go?"

Many cobbler makers, like Carol House, are guided by a treasured family recipe. She and husband, Leonard, own Long Green Valley Specialty Crops in Baltimore County, where they grow and sell blueberries, blackberries, red raspberries, peaches and apples to roadside markets.

"My cobbler recipe is handed down from my mother," House says. "It's nothing fancy, but simple and good. It calls for three cups of fresh fruit. You can use raspberries or two cups peaches and one cup blueberries. Substitute any fruit you like, put the topping on, and you'll love it."

House, who grew up on a farm in Glen Arm, where her family raised peaches, makes two to three cobblers a week in the summer. Some grace her dinner table, others go to family, friends and folks in her husband's office.

"They love them," she says. "I don't think you can beat a warm cobbler for dessert."

While cobblers call for simple ingredients, an adventuresome cook could toss in ground nutmeg or lemon zest or add a splash of amaretto or orange liqueur to the fruit mixture. Drizzle fresh cream over the baked crust or add a dollop of creme fraiche and you've taken the cobbler to new heights.

"Put a little twist on it, and turn the whole thing around," says Shields, who sometimes serves cobbler as a dessert special at Gertrude's, his restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"If I have access to beautiful blueberries, I put those with the peaches and toss them with a little zest of the lemon. A little bit of that almond extract would be nice. Put some ground almonds in the topping. Just enough to give a little character, like 1/4 cup," Shields says.

Luckily for Marylanders, peach season runs through mid-September, allowing plenty of time to fiddle around with a basic peach or mixed-fruit cobbler.

"People love old-fashioned desserts," Shields says. "You get a hold of a good cobbler, and you want to cry. Life is good."

Shields' Peach Cobbler

Serves 6

3 cups peeled and sliced ripe peaches

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar (divided use)

1 1/4 cups plus 1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (divided use)

pinch of salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 egg

3/4 cup milk

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, melted

vanilla ice cream for accompaniment

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish. Toss the peaches with 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 1/2 tablespoons flour. Pour into the baking dish.

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