No matter the topping or filling, cobblers are always delicious

Wednesday, August 6, 2008
AARON EISENHAUER ~ Natascha Atwood displays a blueberry cobbler, the new menu item at Broadway Books and Roasting Co.

These are the lazy days of summer. So it's no coincidence that this is also the prime season for cobbler.

A cobbler, after all, in the words of Nicole Weston on her Baking Bites blog, is just a pie for lazy people. As she explains, it gives you the all the character of a pie but without the hassle.

Thus, because they are not intimidating, as Nancy Silverton of the acclaimed La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles notes, cobblers are perfect for apprehensive cooks. Award-winning cookbook author Dorie Greenspan agrees. She calls them no-matter-what desserts: "No matter what fruit you use, no matter what topping combo, no matter what pan, no matter how neat the construction, no matter how messy, they are always delicious."

But cobblers were not invented out of either indolence or insecurity. Rather, they are a combination of European tradition and American resourcefulness.

Colonial cooks brought their favorite recipes for oven-baked pies with them to this country, but lacking brick ovens they resorted to cooking them over an open fire by placing a filling in a pot, covering it with dough, and putting on the lid. Early on the fillings might as likely be made of meat or vegetables as fruit. In fact, today in England the term cobbler mostly refers to a savory casserole-like dish rather than a dessert. It was not until the 19th century that the term in this country became primarily associated with dessert when pioneer cooks, again out of necessity, adjusted pie recipes to the parameters of a Dutch oven.

Cobblers, then, are among that panoply of what "The Joy of Cooking" refers to as "homey fruit-and-dough desserts" with curious names — like pandowdy, brown betty, slump, grunt and buckle — that are typically American. (Indeed, all of these are arguably even more American than apple pie.) But though typically American, not everyone agrees on what a typical cobbler is or even why it's called that. One theory is that the name refers to the cook "cobbling" or patching together the ingredients for the dish. Another suggests the name is a reference to a cobblestone street, which a finished cobbler allegedly resembles.

Though some people make no distinction between a cobbler and, say, a crisp or a crumble, maintaining that they are all variations on a common theme, others argue vigorously over the defining characteristics of such desserts. Silverton, for example, insists that a crumble must contain oats in its topping or otherwise it's a mere crisp. Ultimately, according to the editors of Cooks Illustrated, it all depends on the topping and, they claim, cobblers are always topped with dough.

AARON EISENHAUER ~ Blueberry cobbler served with a scoop of ice cream at Broadway Books and Roasting Company.

But that hardly ends the controversy, for, as Ritter and Doti point out in their cobbler cookbook, bakers quarrel over the type of dough — whether biscuit, pastry, crumbled cookie dough or cake batter — as well as whether it goes on the top or the bottom of the fruit. There are even disputes about whether a true cobbler is rectangular or round.

But everybody agrees that these humble pies have nothing to be modest about.

Blackberry cobbler

This cobbler, adapted from Lee Bailey's Country Desserts, is the kind they serve at Broadway Books & Roasting Company of Cape Girardeau where they take cobbler as seriously as they take coffee.

1 1/2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons frozen shortening

1 stick frozen butter, divided

4-5 tablespoons ice water

6 cups blackberries

1/4 cup sugar

In a food processor mix flour, salt, shortening and 1/2 stick butter until rough textured. Slowly add water, processing until dough clings together. Form into ball, flatten slightly, and refrigerate 30 minutes. On floured surface roll dough into a 15-inch circle. Line the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round ovenproof dish with the dough, draping excess over edge. Add berries and sugar and dot with remaining butter cut into pieces. Bring pastry up over berries, sprinkle with a bit more sugar, and bake at 425 degrees for 45 minutes until browned and bubbly.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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