I have recently been alarmed to learn of the indiscriminateness with which the general public uses the term cobbler.
I partially blame Paula Deen, whose ostensible cobbler recipe is the top result when you Google peach cobbler. Deens recipe is a buckle in disguise: She calls for spooning cooked peaches on top of a thin cake batter and then baking until the batter rises above the fruit.
Southern Living, doing its best BuzzFeed impression, offers us 14 Crazy-Good Fruit Cobblers, among which are three pandowdy recipes (fruit topped with pie crust), two crisp recipes (fruit topped with streusel), a variation on Deens buckle, a fruit bar recipe and a bloody shortcake recipe.
But, you may ask, wouldnt a clafoutis by any other name taste as sweet? (Thats fruit baked with a crepe-like batter.) Why does it matter?
It matters because words mean things. I do not want to live in a world where common ignorance relegates crisps a magnificent and important category of dessert in their own right to another, completely separate category of dessert.
It would be a disgrace if buckles, slumps, pandowdies, and other charmingly named, obscure fruit desserts were lost to history because contemporary Americans cant be bothered to make a distinction between fruit baked with pie crust and fruit steamed with dumplings.
Theres an astonishing array of different ways to cook fresh fruit, and calling every fruit dessert a cobbler obscures the individuality of each of them.
Whats the definition?
So, what, then, is a cobbler? A cobbler is a dessert consisting of sugared (and often spiced) fruit topped with a sweetened biscuit topping and baked until the fruit is tender and the topping is golden.
The bottom part of the topping sinks into the fruit and sops up its flavorful juices, acquiring a dumpling-like texture; the top part undergoes the Maillard reaction and gets brown and firm; the middle part arranges itself into a light, spongy crumb.
Meanwhile, the rest of the fruits juices mingle with the sugar and whatever thickener youve added to it (usually cornstarch or flour) to form a hot, sticky syrup that is best appreciated when juxtaposed with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The cobbler is, in short, a tremendous dish.
Making the best possible cobbler is mainly a question of selectivity and restraint. By selectivity, I mean choosing good, ripe fruit in this case, peaches. Hard, mealy peaches are definitely better in a cobbler than they are raw, but a cobbler made with mediocre fruit will never be great.
You can use frozen fruit, though it departs from the spirit of cobbler, which is traditionally a way to make a dent in a bumper crop of fresh fruit.
By restraint, I am referring mostly to sugar: The fruit layer should not be a sickeningly sweet concoction indistinguishable from canned peaches. It should be tart and assertive. It needs only a little sugar, and a lot of lemon juice to balance it out. (The filling here is quite a bit more liquid than, say, a fruit pie filling, since you dont need to worry about a bottom crust going soggy.)
The biscuit topping
The biscuit layer is sweeter than normal biscuits, but it should not be as sweet as cake. (This is where the ice cream comes in, if you have a sweet tooth.)
Restraint is also required with the quantity of topping, which derives from a batter, like drop biscuits, rather than a dough, like rolled biscuits.
Raw, the batter will look sparse when dolloped on top of the peaches, but it will rise and spread out as it cooks. If you use enough batter to completely cover the fruit, youll end up with a cobbler thats too bready, more like an upside-down cake.
To see a printable version of the recipe, click on the link below:
HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Put the peaches, lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, the cornstarch, the cinnamon and the nutmeg in a large bowl; toss to combine. Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch-square pan and bake for 10 minutes.
COMBINE flour, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, the baking powder, the salt, and the baking soda in a medium bowl. Add the butter and blend with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the buttermilk and almond extract and stir just until combined.
REMOVE pan from the oven and drop the batter in large, evenly spaced dollops on top of the peaches. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar over the batter. Continue baking until the topping is golden brown and the peaches are tender, 30 to 35 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. Yield: 9 to 12 servings